In the final feature of Big4Bio’s Company to Watch program for July, we asked Meissa Vaccines’ Board Chairperson Kenneth J. Kelley about his predictions for Meissa and the importance of the company’s efforts.
Briefly, tell me how you came to chair Meissa Vaccines’ Board of Directors.
Marty Moore reached out to me first for advice in the summer of 2016 while he was both a associate professor at Emory and founder of Meissa Vaccines. I was impressed by Marty’s expertise and skill in using codon deoptimization to understand and modulate viral pathogenesis and immune responses, starting with RSV, as well as his commitment to using his technology to come up with a live attenuated RSV vaccine for infants. We discussed strategy, I helped recruit some team members, and we kept in touch. In 2017, I participated in the seed round for Meissa Vaccines and became an advisor on fundraising and clinical/regulatory, leveraging my experience and success in cofounding PaxVax, one of the few successful vaccine startups to date (PaxVax was acquired by Emergent BioSolutions for its cholera, typhoid, and chikungunya virus vaccines). In 2019, after finishing my stint as a White House Presidential Executive Fellow, where I advised the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at NIAID, I was able to join Meissa’s Board of Directors to mentor Marty Moore as CEO, since he had relinquished his tenured position at Emory to pursue Meissa full-time. Marty and Meissa then successfully raised a large venture capital round to achieve his first IND and clinical development program in RSV.
What is exciting/unique about Meissa and the company’s prospects?
Meissa’s proprietary and modern approach to live attenuated viral vaccines make it both unique and compelling. While live attenuated vaccines have historically been some of the safest and most effective (eliciting both B-cell and T-cell immunity), only Marty and his team at Meissa seem to have been able to construct such viable vaccine candidates for the most important infant respiratory viral diseases for which there are no vaccines today. These represent the worst killers of infants in developed and undeveloped countries and billions of dollars of market opportunity. In recent years, starting with breakthroughs at the NIAID/VRC, where RSV’s pre-F antigen structure was shown to be critical, several competitors are now trying to develop potential protein-adjuvanted and mRNA-encoding vaccines against RSV. But none of these vaccines can likely be used in infants, rather they might be used in adults. The period of maximal vulnerability is in the first two years of life. So Meissa’s prospects are great in terms of saving the lives of children all over the world first from RSV, and of repeating this success for society for other life-threatening respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 and hMPV.
Coming off more than a year of the pandemic, what is your take on the importance of vaccine development, and what do you see as Meissa’s role in that?
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated interest in vaccines throughout all nations and communities around the world. The scientific academic and biopharmaceutical industry have a rekindled interest in vaccines and a bit of a renaissance in applying biotechnology tools to the task. That’s why Marty and Meissa’s synthetic biology approach of codon optimization and dissecting viral pathogenesis is so interesting. Meissa pivoted to apply its technique to develop a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for COVID-19 like many others, but with key differentiating advantages. Meissa’s vaccine is designed to be a “second generation” and global vaccine – meaning it has the potential to be globally affordable, a single needle-free intranasal dose, and suitable for all ages. While the U.S. Government and Operation Warp Speed had great success in enabling the development of “first generation” vaccines against COVID-19 of unprecedented efficacy to protect against severe disease, they have not focused on ensuring the development of second generation, global vaccines to protect the rest of the world and bring this pandemic to an end. I fear the challenges of financing second generation COVID-19 vaccines will continue to lead to unnecessary morbidity and mortality in most of the developing world and thus will continue to be a threat to U.S. national security as well. “We are not safe till everyone is safe” remains an important and critical refrain.
Finally, why do you think it’s worth investing in a company like Meissa and what do you see as a payoff for such an investment?
Meissa represents a very attractive investment and is about to be at an inflection point in value creation by proving the viability of its lead vaccine candidate for RSV and thus the utility of its platform to create further vaccine candidates against life-threatening respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 and hMPV. As more attention is focused on RSV as the “next big thing” in vaccines (after COVID-19, of course), more investors will discern Meissa’s unique approach and competitive advantage, even over the now popular mRNA vaccine approach.
This is part of the Big4Bio Company to Watch program for July 2021: Meissa Vaccines.
For more information on the series, click here.