Another Philly Company Joins the Race to Develop a Coronavirus Vaccine

Chimeron Bio's RNA technology could make a future coronavirus vaccine more accessible to patients and cheaper for companies to produce.

Jolly Mazumdar is the chief executive officer of Chimeron Bio. / Courtesy

As the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 continues to spread around the country and globe, scientists are thinking more about long-term implications. Researchers have yet to definitively confirm whether the virus spreads faster in warmer or colder temperatures, but some are already predicting that coronavirus could be a seasonal virus like the flu. This means that even if the impending summer heat helps to slow infections, the pace could pick right back up in the fall when cooler temperatures return, making it even more critical to discover a vaccine that could prevent infections, and soon.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it’s doing its part by encouraging companies of all sizes and experience levels to put their expertise to use.

“Although vaccination strategies won’t stop the spread of the virus in the short term, if infections go beyond this season, it will be important to have countermeasures, including vaccines, to help prevent additional cases of COVID-19,” an FDA spokesperson told NextHealth PHL.

“It’s critical to have several vaccine candidates in the pipeline. The FDA is committed to working with vaccine developers, including those very early in the development process.”

At least 16 companies are currently working to create a coronavirus vaccine. In Philadelphia, several companies are part of this group. Earlier this month, we spoke with University City-based biotech company Integral Molecular about how the company’s experience helping researchers develop treatments for Ebola, Zika and Chikungunya viruses could speed up the discovery of a vaccine for coronavirus. We also spoke with Plymouth Meeting biotech company Inovio Pharmaceuticals whose effort to develop a vaccine using a unique immunotherapy approach recently received $9 million in support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

Chimeron Bio, a biotech company based in BioLabs@CIC in University City, is the latest to join the race. The company was founded in 2015, with a focus on developing RNA medicines for various diseases. It’s one of the smaller, younger companies entering this arena but Chimeron’s chief executive officer Jolly Mazumdar says they’re just as committed to finding a preventative cure. To develop a coronavirus vaccine, Chimeron plans to leverage the company’s proprietary ChaESAR particle, a self-amplifying RNA technology that can deliver highly immunogenic viral genes, to produce a swift immune response.

NextHealth PHL spoke with Mazumdar about the company’s first steps toward developing a coronavirus vaccine and how its technology and approach differ from that of other companies working toward the same goal.

NextHealth PHL: What is Chimeron Bio’s focus as a company?
Mazumdar: We are an early stage RNA therapy company, committed to the development of RNA drugs and vaccines. We are strictly in the space of RNA therapy which, broadly speaking, falls under the category of gene therapy. But the type of RNA that we are delivering, our proprietary technology, is different from the standard mRNA or interfering RNA delivery that you see from leading RNA companies such as  Moderna, Alnylam and others.  We have a unique technology that can combine mRNA and the interfering RNA all on the same platform.  This gives us the flexibility to treat diseases much more efficiently than traditional drugs. Currently, we are focused on developing innovative drugs for cancer and liver disorders.  More recently, we announced our intention to use our technology to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

Why did you decide to launch an effort to find a vaccine for COVID-19?
We felt it was our obligation. Though our focus was elsewhere, once the crisis hit, we felt it was our social responsibility to initiate an effort to discover a vaccine.  We believe our technology is well suited for the development of a vaccine that is effective, requires a lower dose and is low cost, and therefore paving the way for an affordable high-quality vaccine. We have started the program and are seeking partners that can help us expedite the advancement of the vaccine to the clinic.

How does your RNA Therapy work?
Our technology is different from the other approaches in vaccine development. We can target the immune cells and deliver self-amplifying viral RNA directly to the cells. In the immune cells, as the name suggests, the viral RNA self-amplifies, making multiple copies of itself, which results in an amplified immune response.  Also, such a technology will require a lower dose.  So, we can produce an amplified immune response using a lower dose.  Therefore, if this works, a single batch of the vaccine can be used to vaccinate many more people worldwide.

What can Chimeron’s technology do? And how does your company’s approach to COVID-19 vaccine development differ from that of other companies?

First, we can deliver not one virus antigen, but multiple antigens packaged in the same particle using our technology. This is unique to the space. And why is this important? Because right from the get-go we can have a broad-spectrum approach, which could protect us from harmful mutations of the virus.

Secondly, because of our self-amplifying technology, our vaccine will require a lower dose and less frequent dosing. So, when you think about patient accessibility, globally, one batch of vaccine can be made available to many more people. We have a big advantage there.

Our manufacturing process is much less complicated than what some of the current companies are trying to do. So, we can produce a low-cost vaccine. Also, our vaccine is amenable to both subcutaneous and intramuscular administration, and these are the two most common routes for vaccine delivery. So, our technology has superior science and better feasibility.

How soon do you think your vaccine could be ready for clinical trials?
Our vaccine program will be conducted in two phases. Phase one, which starts next month, will be all the initial safety and efficacy assessment of our candidates in rats. The vaccine design is already underway. We have full control over that, and once we make the formulation, we’ll send it to George Mason University for testing. Our goal is to wrap up preclinical testing in rats in the next five months.

Around October or early in the fourth quarter of 2020, we are targeting to start our assessment in nonhuman primates, which will be monkeys, in this case. That should last about nine months. And then the goal is to send that data to the FDA for an IND filing. If we then get the green light from the FDA we can start clinical testing in humans. So, it is fair to say it’s going to take 18 months to two years.

The goal now is to generate quality data, be efficient in the process, and bring this vaccine to the clinic as soon as possible.