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Improving Human Health With Intelligent Vaccine
Until just a few years ago, Jeff Baxter was the managing partner of a successful venture capital firm. Previously, he had roles across Commercial Manufacturing and R&D at one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline.
Then the challenge of returning to a big operational role lured him to join Variation Biotechnologies in September of 2009.
The Company had been founded in 2001 in Ottawa. The three founders were leading scientists and researchers who had been investing their own money, pinching pennies and sleeping on sofas to survive, but they had seized upon a novel way of creating peptide antigens (proteins the body uses to fight infection) that could attack not only a targeted virus, but all of its likely mutant strains as well. The prognosis was exciting but it was still very uncertain. Their initial focus was HIV. Then in 2006, a $35.7M Series A Financing was raised and the company transitioned from early stage research to product development.
"I had to take the job because the science was compelling, and the mission was not trivial," says Baxter, who is now the President and CEO of Variation Biotechnologies, Inc. ("VBI"). "This technology presents a huge opportunity to protect people from the flu and many other viral diseases, [and] it could potentially be the answer to all kinds of pandemic threats," he adds, noting that more than 33,000 people died last year in North America from pandemic flu alone.
Thanks to the injection of venture capital funds that VBI received in 2006, the company now has successfully developed and tested three next-generation technologies on animal subjects with promising results, and it is ready to move forward with clinical testing of drugs related to those technologies.
The three revolutionary technologies are:
"Our predictive modeling, oral formulation and thermo-stability technologies have displayed huge potential [and] could change the way medicine is delivered," Baxter exclaims.
In fact, VBI is working on partnership agreements now involving both the United States and Canadian governments, which are expected to fund Phase One (human subject) clinical trials for flu vaccines.
"We are leading the effort to develop a 'universal' flu vaccine that can fight multiple strains of flu," Baxter says. He suggests that people might effectively immunize themselves against flu with just one treatment every five to 10 years, because known antigen strains tend to be predictable within those periods.
Potentially, a vaccine based on predictive modeling will not just save time and money, it will save lives. Vaccines that need to be customized and targeted to just one strain can take months to develop, as evidenced by last year's H1N1 vaccine, and a pandemic killer could mutate from an existing strain with little or no time for traditional vaccine development. Because 36,000 people a year die from all kinds of influenza in the U.S. alone, the development of a "universal" vaccine could be a major life-saver.
Baxter says that the thermo-stability technology is incredibly valuable as well. "Putting an end to the necessity of cold-chain distribution is incredibly important, especially in developing countries," he asserts, noting that extreme heat or cold can kill the effectiveness of current vaccines, which must be stored at precise temperatures (between 36 and 46 degrees) and used quickly.
He points for example, to one recent incident involving hundreds of Chinese children who died from Hepatitis A after receiving vaccinations that had been accidentally frozen, and notes that VBI is also developing a stable Hepatitis A vaccine.
The ability to formulate oral vaccines is critical too, says Baxter, because there are real fears about needles in many countries, and there are grave concerns about contaminated needle-sticks among health care workers. Furthermore, the potential for patients to receive over-the-counter tablets instead of getting injected by nurses, could help relieve labor pressures in the health care sector.
Baxter notes that VBI is already working with the Walter Reed Institute on an oral vaccine to fight Shigella, a common and debilitating stomach virus in many parts of the world that often afflicts soldiers overseas.
He believes that VBI will succeed in its mission of improving human health with intelligent vaccines, not just because the science is right, but because the company has a board of directors and an advisory group that are fully invested and compose "the strongest boards in the vaccine field."
The former president of Abbott Company, the founder of Immunex, the former chairman and CEO of Cubist Pharmaceuticals and a former senior executive at Merck & Co. all sit on the board, while the Director of the NIH Vaccine Institute and a doctor who has developed many modern vaccines are all key advisers.
Baxter credits his legal advisers for playing a key role as well, "Burns & Levinson has acted as company counsel since day one, and they have the full confidence of our investors." Noting that VBI has U.S. and Canadian operations, he adds that "our law firm is the perfect fit for us because of their presence in both countries. Partner Len Gold is particularly effective at working with the Canadian and U.S. governments, and he has helped us to connect with government policy-makers, and to secure grants and tax credits for the company," says Baxter, adding that the firm also handles day to day issues involving employment, tax, and corporate matters as well. "We put it all in their hands," Baxter says.