New Hep C Vaccine Approach Pursued by Okairos
Former Merck Unit Works on First Vaccine for Hepatitis C
By Makiko Kitamura on March 14, 2012
Okairos AG, a biotechnology business that Merck & Co. (MRK) sold to venture capital funds in 2007, is seeking to produce the first preventive vaccine for hepatitis C, challenging makers of treatments for the disease.
Okairos has begun a mid-stage study, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, of a gene-based vaccine designed to stimulate the body’s immune system to prevent hepatitis C from taking hold, Chief Operating Officer Tom Woiwode said in a phone interview from the company’s Basel, Switzerland, headquarters.
No vaccine exists for hepatitis C, which affects as many as 170 million people globally, putting them at risk of developing liver cancer, according to the World Health Organization. The growing population of patients infected with the virus spurred Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD)’s decision in November to buy experimental hepatitis C-treatment maker Pharmasset Inc. for $10.8 billion and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMY)’s acquisition in February of Inhibitex Inc. for $2.5 billion.
“This could change the landscape quite a bit,” said Les Funtleyder, a health-care strategist and portfolio manager at Miller Tabak & Co. in New York. “In theory, if you could vaccinate everyone, you’d need a lot less drug.” Funtleyder said he isn’t aware of any other preventive vaccines in development.
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