NextUp: The Company Developing Next-Generation COVID-19 Vaccines

MBF Therapeutics is applying its expertise in developing gene-based vaccines for use in pets to discover a vaccine that’ll provide longer-lasting immunity to the coronavirus.

Thomas Tillett is the president and chief executive officer of MBF Therapeutics. / Courtesy

“NextUp” is a weekly NextHealth PHL feature that highlights the local leaders, organizations and research shaping the Greater Philadelphia region’s life sciences ecosystem. Email with pitches for NextUp.

Who: When Tom Tillett and Lorraine Keller founded MBF Therapeutics in 2008, they did so because they saw an opportunity to make an impact in the study and development of treatments for canine cancer.

“In the late 2000s, the benefits of the immunotherapy revolution were just really beginning,” MBF Therapeutics CEO Tillett explained.

“The role of immunotherapy was growing and there were are a lot of new medications that were available to humans, that were radically changing prognosis for cancer in humans, but that technology had not yet been transferred to animal health.”

At the time, standard surgery, chemotherapeutics and radiation were the only options for treating canine cancer, and they were costly. So, Tillett’s team set out to develop new treatments that could manipulate the canine immune system to fight cancer like the immunotherapies and targeted therapies that had been introduced for humans.

The MBF in the company name appropriately stands for Man’s Best Friend. The company has a small staff of four employees that operate from its headquarters offices in Ambler, Pa.

What: MBF Therapeutics is an animal health company focused on discovering new treatments for cancer and infectious diseases in pets. It is the first company to develop a vaccine for the animal health market using gene-based checkpoint inhibitors, therapies that have proven to be effective in treating multiple cancers in humans, such as melanoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, lung, liver, bladder, kidney, and colorectal. Checkpoint inhibitors work by empowering T-cells to recognize and attack tumors.

The company is working to claim its share of an estimated $500 million canine cancer market, with an estimated 6 million new cancer diagnoses made in dogs each year. MBF Therapeutic’s lead product is an immunotherapeutic vaccine for canine melanoma. In 2016, MBFT collaborated with the Wistar Institute to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of its vaccine candidate, leveraging the Institute’s existing vaccine research. The vaccine was proven safe and effective at inducing immune responses in dogs. Having successfully completed two pilot studies, the company is currently working to complete a clinical trial that will provide the safety and efficacy data needed to secure a conditional license from the United States Department of Agriculture.

“The ability to stimulate an effective immune response to cancer targets in dogs is just the beginning of what we believe this technology is capable of achieving in both companion animals and livestock,” Tillett said.

When: In January 2020, MBF Therapeutics assembled a team of university researchers who are experts on African swine fever (ASF) — a highly contagious hemorrhagic viral disease of domestic and wild pigs that is currently devastating pork production in Asia and spreading into Eastern and Western Europe — to develop the first effective vaccine for the disease. In April, the company signed an agreement with Smithfield Foods to collaborate on the design and development of swine vaccines.

“Whether it is addressing the need for a cross-protective swine influenza vaccine or solving the urgent need for a safe and durable African Swine Fever vaccine, our technology offers an innovative approach to vaccine design that is well suited for use in livestock,” Tillett said. “MBF Therapeutics’ vaccine strategy and proprietary technologies represent medical advances initially envisioned for human use, that will now be accelerated by developing applications for animals first.”

To date, the company has raised $2.5 million to support the development of its multiple vaccine candidates.

What it means: The primary discovery thus far for MBF has been the translation of gene-based checkpoint inhibitor platform technology to dogs from laboratory animal models as investigated, patented and published by the Wistar Institute. But the company’s latest venture is aimed at finding futuristic solutions for COVID-19 because as Tillett explains, the existing B-cell vaccines that are being developed have their share of limitations. One of those limitations is the fact that B-cell vaccines tend not to provide immunity for a long period of time versus T-cell vaccines, which do.

“B-cell vaccines attack the virus as it circulates in the bloodstream but once that virus infects the cells, it becomes invisible to the B-cell vaccine,” Tillett explained. “So, a strong, sustained T-cell response is necessary to get at the cells that are harboring, creating and multiplying the virus so you can eliminate those as well.”

According to Tillett, B-cell vaccines tend to work for months while T-cell vaccines can last for 10 years or more. Other limitations include the fact that most of the B-cell vaccines currently being developed for COVID must be stored at a specific temperature and use a viral vector for delivery that, if administered more than once, could make the body develop resistance to the vaccine itself. Even with their limitations, Tillett says these vaccines “will bring great value in the near term.” So, instead of joining the race to find immediate B-cell vaccines for COVID-19, MBF Therapeutics is focusing its efforts on long-term cures.

Why it matters now: In July, MBF Therapeutics formed a collaboration of life science industry experts to develop what it calls the “next generation” of COVID-19 vaccines. The company plans to use its T-cell vaccine platform to develop a Sars-CoV-2 vaccine that can elicit a strong immune response, be stored at room temperature, be delivered through the nose, eliminating the need for a viral vector, and could potentially work against future mutations of the COVID-19 virus.

“This is what’s needed in a next-generation product,” Tillett said. “These first-generation products are badly needed; we want to see them get on the market because they will bring value. But a second-generation product is going to be needed to provide a long-term solution to this problem as well.”

MBF Therapeutics plans to begin testing its next-gen COVID vaccine in hamsters later this month.