Seattle-based biotech startup Icosavax today scored $51 million in funding to create vaccines from artificial viruses. The Series A financing was led by Qiming Venture Partners USA along with Adams Street Partners, Sanofi Ventures and NanoDimension.
Most vaccines train the body to protect against disease using biological agents — often using a harmless form of the disease they want to protect against.
Icosavax, a University of Washington spinout, is approaching the problem a bit differently. The startup is creating virus-like particles (VLPs) that are designed on computers with technology licensed from the Institute for Protein Design (IPD) at the UW.
“[VLPs] look and smell like viruses, which is why you get this big activity of the immune system. But they’re safe because they’re not viruses,” Icosavax CEO Adam Simpson told GeekWire. The particles are currently used in approved vaccines for HPV and Hepatitis B.
Icosavax’s first goal is to create a vaccine for the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in adults and pursue clinical studies. In the future, they plan to use the same technology against other viruses as well.
RSV is similar to the flu and is particularly dangerous to newborns and the elderly. Adult infections are responsible for 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.
Icosavax is the latest company to spin out of IPD, which is led by Professor David Baker. The institute won $45 million earlier this year from TED’s Audacious Project and is responsible for launching startups Arzeda, Cyrus Biotechnology, PvP Biologics, Virvio, Neoleukin Therapeutics and A-Alpha Bio.
“What they’re doing at IPD is scientifically incredible,” said Simpson, who also serves as CEO of PvP Biologics, which is working on a drug for Celiac disease.
The VLP technology was invented by IPD researcher Dr. Neil King, who serves as chair of the company’s scientific advisory board. The company’s board of directors is led by Tadataka (Tachi) Yamada, former chief medical and scientific officer of Takeda Pharmaceuticals.
Normally, it would be difficult to create a VLP for a virus-like RSV because of the complexity involved. Icosavax got around that problem with the help of proteins they designed using computers.
By building proteins from scratch, the team was able to break down the complex biological problem into more manageable parts. When combined, those parts come together to form the VLP.
“We were extremely impressed with this novel approach using computational protein design to create VLP-based vaccines that have improved efficacy and are simple to manufacture,” Mark McDade, managing partner at Qiming, said in a statement.
Icosavax’s board of directors also includes Simpson, McDade, Adams Street partner Terry Gould, U.S. head of investments at Sanofi Ventures Jason Hafler, and NanoDimension partner Eric Moessinger.
Former Takeda executive Dr. Doug Holtzman is Icosavax’s chief scientific officer, and former GSK Vaccines executive Dr. Niranjan Kanesa-thasan is chief medical officer.