By David Shamah
The notion of a vaccine for cancer – or for many other deadly diseases nearly impossible to control, let alone cure – may seem to be no more than wishful thinking. But that is exactly what Israeli biomed startup Vacciguard is introducing: A technology tool for developing vaccines against a wide range of diseases from cancer to West Nile virus.
We may be in the 21st century, says Vacciguard CEO Dr. Anat Eitan, but more than 15 million people die each year from infectious diseases – and not only in developing countries.
“Our technology consists of proprietary peptide carriers which are derived from a protein element called Heat Shock Protein 60 enabling a much more effective method of battling bacteria and viruses,” says Eitan.
Vacciguard’s research shows that when carrier peptides from HSP60 are attached to external areas of a pathogen or tumor (known as an antigen), the “arms” of the immune system are activated — enabling the generation of specific T-cells that support a long-lasting immune memory against the antigen-bearing pathogens or tumors. The system works very effectively, even without the addition of agents generally used to boost the response to a vaccine under existing technologies.
“We are able to take small sections of the bacteria or virus that by themselves are unable to activate the immune system because they contain only weak antigens, and turn them into strong immunogens,” Eitan tells ISRAEL21c. Immunogens are antigens that can provoke an adaptive immune response.
Hope against deadly diseases
Vacciguard’s system could provide a way to develop effective vaccines against maladies that currently have no effective treatments, such as meningitis type B, three types of West Nile virus and cytomegalovirus (CMV), which infects between 50 percent and 80% of adults in the United States, and 40% worldwide. CMV, though many have never heard of it, also is the main cause of devastating defects in newborns.
“CMV is typically unnoticed in healthy people, but can be life-threatening for those with weak immune systems, such as the elderly, HIV sufferers, organ transplant recipients and the like. With our system, we can develop vaccines for any of these situations,” says Eitan. She adds that there is great interest in the United States in offering immunization against CMV to women before they become pregnant.
One of the reasons for the Vacciguard system’s greater effectiveness is how its components are derived. “Most of the currently used vaccines are based on either an attenuated pathogen or a single whole protein of a bacteria or virus,” explains Eitan.
“We can take a few amino acids from the pathogen that are common in all its strains, and develop a single vaccine that is effective against all the strains of the selected pathogen — instead of developing a specific vaccine to each strain as is the case with the existing technologies.”
As a result, Vacciguard technology can be used to quickly develop vaccines for different permutations of a disease – and address issues of resistance in later generations of bacteria and viruses, as well.
Successful studies with mice
Vacciguard’s technology was developed by Prof. Irun Cohen, a world-renowned immunologist at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science, who has been working to develop HSP60 as a vaccine base for many years. Cohen has published more articles in the journals of Science and Nature than any other Israeli scientist.
Vacciguard, established in 2007 and incubated at the Misgav Venture Accelerator for biotechnology, has conducted extensive studies using mice. In one test, all the mice that were exposed to pneumonia but were not given a vaccine died – while almost all of the mice that received the injection survived.
The studies were promising enough to persuade Campus Bio, the drug development division of Clal Biotech, to invest $1.4 million in Vacciguard. Under the recent agreement, the Rehovot-based Vacciguard team will develop a vaccine for CMV.
“It’s exciting to be part of a venture that can for the first time provide an effective treatment for millions who in the past had little or no hope of overcoming their condition,” says Eitan. “We believe that our technology will be at the forefront of helping those people.”