With $7M NIH grant, Inovio set to test HIV vaccine with a checkpoint inhibitor

Inovio Pharmaceuticals is planning an HIV vaccine proof-of-concept program that includes combo testing with checkpoint inhibitors.

After successfully shepherding a Zika vaccine candidate into the clinic before any other developer, Inovio Pharmaceuticals is amping up its efforts in HIV. The company locked down $7 million in government funding to test its vaccine cocktail alone or in a combo with checkpoint inhibitors known for their ability to fight cancer.

The company announced a new clinical program that’ll test Inovio’s Pennvax-GP HIV vaccine, plus the IL-12 immune activator INO-9012, alone or together with an unspecified PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor, a drug class that includes blockbusters from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck.

According to the Pennsylvania biotech, big-selling checkpoint inhibitors currently reshaping cancer treatment may also play a role in managing chronic infectious diseases. Inovio is working with the University of California at San Francisco and Los Angeles on the proof-of-concept program in HIV-positive patients.

Inovio developed its Pennvax candidate through a $25 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Last year, it received a separate $16 million commitment from the agency as it continues the work. The shot is currently in a phase 1 study testing safety and immunogenicity as a protective measure against HIV.

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The newest trial will test the cocktail as an HIV therapy, according to the company.

In a statement, Inovio CEO J. Joseph Kim said the company believes a “one-two punch of generating potent killer T cells with our immunotherapies,” combined with checkpoint inhibitors, “could be an important step in generating functional cure for these diseases.” The biotech is taking a similar approach in cancer, he said.

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Back in 2015, AstraZeneca’s MedImmune unit scooped up rights to Inovio’s INO-3112 cancer vaccine for up to $727 million with plans to test the shot in combination with I/O molecules from its own pipeline.

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Inovio made headlines last year for being the first vaccine developer to reach the clinic with a Zika shot after a devastating outbreak of that virus quickly swept the globe in late 2015. Kim has said a licensed vaccine would conservatively be worth $1 billion a year as travelers could pay a high price for protection. Dozens of companies and organizations are working on Zika candidates.

Of course, the biotech is far from alone in HIV, as well. There are currently no licensed vaccines against the virus, but the NIH, in conjunction with GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, recently launched a major late-stage trial in South Africa. Johnson & Johnson and a variety of academic institutions are also working on HIV vaccine programs.