Published Aug 27, 2018
Viclink spin-out company Avalia Immunotherapies could hold the key to a cure for chronic hepatitis B infection—a currently incurable, life-threatening liver disease that affects 250 million patients worldwide.
Avalia was formed in 2015 to commercialise a joint research project between Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research focused on developing vaccine therapies that stimulate the body’s immune system to prevent or treat infectious diseases and cancer.
Dr Shivali Gulab, Avalia’s chief executive, says the decade-long research partnership between Ferrier’s Professor Gavin Painter and Malaghan’s Professor Ian Hermans has led to a powerful technology platform that has been patented and licensed to the company for commercial development.
“Forming a company gave us the mandate to explore how the technology could be modified to impact different diseases,” explains Shivali, who is based in the United States—the best place to secure additional funding and work alongside leading clinicians and the major pharmaceutical companies.
She says that although the company’s original focus was on cancer therapies, their efforts now include a treatment therapy for people with chronic hepatitis B. Despite the availability of preventative vaccines, two billion people have been acutely infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV) globally; of these, around 10 percent are unable to clear the virus naturally, and will progress to a life-long chronic HBV infection, leading to liver cirrhosis and cancer. Babies have up to a 90 percent risk of chronic infection if the virus is passed from mother-to-child.
“There’s some obvious synergy between HBV—which is a disease of the liver—and Avalia’s immune therapies which directly stimulate a powerful immune response in the liver,” says Shivali. “Our vaccine therapy generates memory T cells in the liver, which have the long-term ability to seek out and eliminate HBV-infected cells.”
She says that this family of T cells have been reported in recent scientific journals as a potential key to curing HBV.
“It’s going to take a global effort to cure this terrible disease, so we’re working with a number of key opinion leaders, academics with industry experience and international companies—that we could potentially partner with at a later date—to make sure our immune therapy helps contribute to a cure.”
Avalia’s chief operating officer Melissa Yiannoutsos says the preclinical trials with Avalia’s technology have given the company confidence around its patented chemical design.
“It’s set a precedent for us to continue developing other products from our technology platform, including preventative vaccines for malaria and influenza, and treatment therapies for virus-associated cancers and solid tumours.”
To help fund that development, Avalia has just completed its latest capital raise—which includes significant investment from Booster.
“Getting new vaccines into human clinical trials is a long and expensive process,” says Melissa. “Funding from our New Zealand investors—Viclink, Malcorp Biodiscoveries Ltd, Powerhouse Ventures Ltd, Cure Kids Ventures Limited and now Booster—gives us the opportunity to maintain our momentum and translate our preclinical results to make our technologies more attractive to other investors.”
She says that Viclink is an ongoing and committed shareholder: “We simply wouldn’t be here without the support we’ve received from our founding investors and growing New Zealand shareholder base. Viclink introducing us to Booster has just been the icing on the cake.”