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Mimicry with real results
LYON, France—Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of the sanofi-aventis Group, announced recently that it has signed a binding agreement for the acquisition of VaxDesign Corp., a privately held U.S. biotechnology company based in Orlando, Fla., that develops, manufactures and markets in vitro models of the human immune system.
Under the terms of the agreement, Sanofi Pasteur will make an upfront payment of $55 million upon closing of the transaction and an additional $5 million upon realization of a certain development step that the companies have not publicly disclosed. The closing of the transaction is expected to occur by the end of 2010.
What drew Sanofi Pasteur to VaxDesign is the U.S. company's Modular IMmune In-vitro Construct (MIMIC) technology, which according to Dr. William Warren, VaxDesign 's president and CEO, "melds immunology with engineering to find solutions to complex biological problems."
The system is designed to capture genetic and environmental diversity and—based on data generated in a surrogate human immune system—provide earlier selection of the optimal product candidate, as opposed to relying on animal models before studies in human clinical trials.
Dr. Michel DeWilde, senior vice president of research and development for Sanofi Pasteur, notes that MIMIC will be relevant in the assessment of the value of Sanofi Pasteur's vaccine candidates, providing "a key filter in the preclinical stage for a 'go/no-go' decision-making process before Phase I human clinical trials."
The relationship of the two companies goes back to around 2005, when Sanofi Pasteur first approached VaxDesign with an interest in putting its technology to work.
"They came to us and let us know what they wanted and what their needs were, and when they came back in 2008, we had everything that they had addressed with us before," Warren tells ddn. "We have a good relationship already and a history of working well together. The difference now is that our customer has become our boss. But we've always considered our clients to be our bosses, so this is just a more official expression of that, and it's a natural progression."
For his part, DeWilde expressed in an interview with ddn that Sanofi Pasteur has great confidence in the MIMIC technology because after seeing the potential of the technology early on, they also got the proof of it in more recent months.
"We gave them different sets of vaccine for a given pathogen—different targets and different formulations—to make sure it predicted things well and that they could reproduce what we had seen in the clinic," DeWilde notes. "In fact, we gave them some that we knew would not work in the clinic to see if they could successfully rule those out with MIMIC."
MIMIC not only successfully reproduced Sanofi Pasteur's own clinical data, DeWilde says, but it is adaptable for the evaluation of multiple diseases and corresponding patient populations.
"With this novel model for understanding mechanisms of action, the probability of clinical success increases and the time to market should decrease. This platform will provide a significant competitive advantage in the development of vaccines," DeWilde says.
Warren says he looks forward to being partnered with a large company like Sanofi Pasteur because "it will allow us to move the technology forward in a far more effective manner," he says, and "enables us to leave an imprint on public health through concrete applications of the immune system in a test tube."
Looking toward the future of the technology and making it even more useful, DeWilde says that expanding MIMIC's capability to replicate the newborn immune system is next on the list most likely, followed by replicating the geriatric immune system.
DeWilde says that Sanofi Pasteur plans to maintain the VaxDesign site and its employee base, to be very careful to maintain the culture of the company and its creativity and productivity.
It's a transition that Warren is very confident will go well.
"We had to have shareholder approval for this, and very rarely do you get 100 percent approval," he notes. "We did have 100 percent of our shareholders vote for this acquisition, and that says a lot, since there is an employee stock option plan as well. Everyone is excited about this, and I suspect we'll be in sync from day one after the acquisition is finalized."