BioPharma, Pharma

Leyden Labs unveils €40M for medicines that could prevent Covid-19 & more

Founded by scientists behind the technology used in Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, Leyden Laboratories is developing intranasal medicines intended to stop viruses before they infect the lungs. SARs-CoV-2 is one target, but the startup plans to address many respiratory pathogens.

 

The team behind the technology used in Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine is taking another shot at viruses with a new startup developing intranasal medicines intended to prevent infection from the novel coronavirus and a range of other respiratory pathogens.

The company, Leyden Laboratories, was founded by a trio from Crucell, a Netherlands-based vaccine developer that Johnson & Johnson acquired a decade ago in a €1.75 (about $2.3 billion) deal. Their new venture, based in Amsterdam and Boston, revealed on Thursday a €40 million (about $47 million) Series A round of financing led by GV.

Leyden Labs CEO Koenraad Wiedhaup said that the startup was formed last year during the first pandemic lockdown. One day, the former McKinsey & Company partner was talking with the three Crucell veterans: former Chief Scientific Officer Jaap Goudsmit, former CEO Dinko Valerio, and Ronald Brus, who succeeded Valerio as CEO. Speaking in a garden in the Dutch city of Leiden, they hatched an idea of developing medicines that could prevent viral spread, potentially preventing pandemics. At that time, Covid vaccines were in the early stages of development and testing. But even with vaccines now becoming more widely available, Wiedhaup said there’s still a place for additional tools.

“These are all reactive,” he said of the Covid vaccines and therapies. “What the world needs is a proactive approach that can protect against viruses.”

A Leyden Labs medicine could protect against Covid-19, but the goal is to develop products that combat viruses broadly. Wiedhaup said the company is doing that by targeting commonalities shared among viral families. If the idea sounds familiar, it might be because companies have been pursuing a similar approach for universal flu vaccines.

The reason we have a different flu vaccine each year is because that virus constantly changes. Developers of universal flu vaccines are trying to target “conserved regions,” parts of the virus that do not change or change little. Such a vaccine could, in theory, work against multiple flu strains over multiple flu seasons. Though the concept has merit, proving it in a clinical trial is difficult, as BiondVax Pharmaceuticals learned through the Phase 3 failure of its universal flu vaccine candidate last fall.

Wiedhaup said Leyden Labs is developing molecules that, like universal flu vaccine candidates, would also target conserved regions. He added that these molecules would stop a virus from entering a cell. He declined to go into detail about the types of molecules that the startup is developing or their mechanism for stopping cell entry. But he said that the company is focused on developing an intranasal formulation because that approach is the best way to fight respiratory viruses. A product that works in the nasopharyngeal area stops the virus from infecting an individual, and in turn prevents that person from spreading the virus to other people. A nasal spray has the added benefit of being simple to use.

“Everybody can handle a nose spray,” Wiedhaup said. “People can administer it themselves. It allows people to protect themselves and others.”

There are other companies pursuing ways to block viruses from entering cells. San Francisco-based Vir Biotechnology is developing drugs based on its proprietary antibody discovery technology. The company has said its intravenously infused Covid-19 antibodies work in two ways: They block viruses from entering cells and they clear away infected ones. In February, Vir and partner GlaxoSmithKline expanded their Covid R&D alliance to include the development of potential antibody therapies for influenza and other respiratory pathogens.

Leyden Labs is taking a different tack than its founders pursued at Crucell, which developed the AdVac technology that is now owned by J&J. AdVac engineers adenovirus so it cannot replicate, then uses that virus to deliver into cells a snippet of viral DNA. Cells use that genetic material to produce copies of a viral protein, which is what prompts the immune system to produce antibodies to a virus.

The AdVac technology led to the J&J Covid vaccine that was authorized by the FDA last month, as well as an Ebola vaccine approved by the agency in 2019. But Wiedhaup said any vaccine has limitations. A vaccine developed to prompt an immune response to a specific part of a virus only works for that part of the virus. He added that vaccines take time to take effect. A Leyden Labs medicine would work immediately.

So far, Leyden Labs has tested its technology in animals. With the new funding, Wiedhaup said the company will build out its team and work toward human testing. He declined to disclose a timeline for when clinical trials might start.

Leyden Labs’ new financing included investment from F-Prime Capital, Casdin Capital, and Brook Byers. Concurrent with the financing, David Schenkein, general partner at GV, and Stephen Knight, president and managing partner at F-Prime, have joined the startup’s board of directors.

Image: Maksim Tkachenko, Getty Images