Google, Sequoia back Oxford universal flu vaccine developer Vaccitech

Vaccitech’s MVA-vectored universal flu vaccine encodes two types of proteins that remain stable in the core of the virus. (John Cairns/Oxford University Innovation)

On its way to developing a universal flu vaccine, University of Oxford spinout Vaccitech has raised £20 million ($27 million) in series A financing, backed by Alphabet’s venture capital arm GV (formerly Google Ventures), Sequoia China and Oxford Sciences Innovation.

The £20 million, together with the £10 million seed round Vaccitech nabbed in 2016, will support development of the company’s lead vaccine candidate, which is designed to protect against all strains of influenza A virus. The company is also working on a cancer vaccine, with a phase 2 study expected to start early this year.

Traditional flu vaccines target antigens on the surface of the flu virus, whose constant mutations force scientists to update flu shots every year to fight the circulating strains. But Vaccitech’s version uses modified vaccinia Ankara (MVA) as a vector to encode two types of proteins that remain unchanged in the core of the virus.

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With natural exposure to influenza, people have developed low levels of T cells, explained Prof. Adrian Hill, who co-developed Vaccitech’s underpinning technology at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute.

“These low levels offer very little protection, but we found in several phase 1 trials that these levels can be boosted about tenfold by a single dose of our MVA-NP+M1 vaccine,” he said.

RELATED: Vaccitech 'universal' flu shot set for phase 2 study in U.K.

Currently testing the vaccine in a phase 2b study in the U.K., Vaccitech plans to enroll 2,000 subjects over two flu seasons to evaluate its efficacy in combination with the annual flu shot against approved flu shots alone.

Vaccitech CEO Tom Evans told FierceVaccines that the study enrolled 862 people for the current season and will recruit the remaining 1,200 for the 2018-19 season. Though the study is examining the shot under the combination path, Hill said the company may develop it as a standalone vaccine if the trial demonstrates good efficacy.

RELATED: Advancing toward a universal flu vaccine: BiondVax reports positive phase 2 data

A few other companies, including Big Pharma Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi, as well as small biotechs FluGen and BiondVax, are also working on the so-called “universal” flu shot that don't need annual updates.

Besides the flu vaccine, Vaccitech is also developing a prostate cancer therapeutic vaccine. It uses Vaccitech’s proprietary chimpanzee adenovirus and MVA as vectors to both encode an antigen in a primer-booster approach. A phase 2 study combining the vaccine with an approved checkpoint inhibitor is expected to begin in early 2018. Other programs in the company’s pipeline include a Middle East Respiratory Syndrom prophylactic currently in phase 1 and two preclinical therapeutic assets against HPV and HBV.

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