Distributed Bio cofounder Jacob Glanville’s new venture, Centivax, just raised a seed round to lay a foundation for human trials of its promising vaccine platform.
Try to get someone to go with you to get a flu shot and you’ll probably hear a similar story from a reluctant pal: “Last time I got the shot, I still got the flu!” Your friend probably isn’t lying: while your seasonal flu vaccine will help spare you the worst brunt of the disease (keeping you out of the hospital, for example), they aren’t always that great at preventing you from getting sick in the first place. That can make your annual trip to the pharmacy to get one seem like an even worse chore.
“Flu shots are pretty bad,” says Jacob Glanville, CEO of Centivax. “They basically range from 30 to 60% efficacy. And some years, it’s like 10%.”
That’s because flu vaccines are often directed toward particular strains of the disease that public health authorities anticipate will be circulating during the season. But if they misjudge what viruses are circulating, people are left with less protection. While flu vaccines tend to generate antibodies against particular flu variants, the fast-mutating viruses can sometimes leave the immune system in the dust.
Fixing this problem is why Glanville founded his San Francisco-based company, which on Wednesday announced it has raised a $10 million seed funding round co-led by NFX and Global Health Investment Corporation. Centivax’s mission is to develop “universal” vaccines against the flu, Covid and other fast-mutating diseases that provide broad, enduring and “future-proof” protection against viral mutations. Ideally, this could mean fewer or even no boosters in the future. But even if boosters are necessary, they’d be a lot more effective at protecting against infection, because they’d work against the majority of strains, not just the ones that are anticipated to circulate.
With the new investment, says Glanville, “the key thing is that we’re initiating manufacturing” which lays the groundwork to begin human vaccine trials. The capital will also be used to initiate studies of Covid and HIV universal vaccines, as well as support for a few of the company’s other initiatives. Glanville expects this investment will give the company about a year and a half of runway, but he anticipates raising a series A within the next 12 months to continue his company’s development efforts.
The idea behind Centivax’s vaccine platform is conceptually simple (though as with all biotech, execution is where the devil is in the details). The company creates vaccine doses for multiple strains of the same disease that have emerged over the years. In the case of flu, for example, it starts with the 1918 H1N1 vaccine and works down through multiple pandemic strains. The company then dilutes each individual strain to a dose that would be too small for a vaccine to induce an immune response.
After dilution, the strains of flu are then combined. The idea here is that while each individual strain is diluted, the dose of viral proteins that all of them have in common will be strengthened to the point where an immune response happens and antibodies are produced. This antibody would, in theory, attacks all of those flu strains plus those that are related to them, because it’s attacking the part of the virus that they all have in common.
This isn’t Glanville’s first foray into biotech entrepreneurship. After working on bioinformatics at U.C. Berkeley, he spent four years as a scientist at Pfizer, applying machine learning models and other bioinformatics tools to the development of antibody treatments. While there, his team published one of the first antibody libraries for humans, providing other researchers with a catalogue of known antibodies that people’s bodies had produced against particular pathogens.
During his time at Pfizer, research in the world of antibodies had determined that some people would get lucky and develop antibodies that were active against conserved sites of viruses like influenza, meaning that their antibodies were directed at parts of the virus that are much less likely to mutate, which enable broader protection. Making vaccines that elicit these antibodies is extremely difficult. Success means achieving one of the holy grails of biotech–a universal vaccine against fast-mutating viruses.
Inspired by the challenge, Glanville left Pfizer in 2012 to found his own company, Distributed Bio, which worked to both develop new vaccines as well as therapeutic antibodies. It was during this time that Glanville began developing the technology for a universal vaccine platform. Distributed Bio later spun out the vaccine side of its business as Centivax, and in 2021, Distributed Bio was acquired by Charles River Laboratories in a deal worth up to $104 million.
Glanville was joined by five other cofounders in creating Centivax: former Pfizer scientist Sawsan Youssef, Scripps Research Institute medical chief Pamela Garzone, Forbes Under 30 alum Stephanie Wisner and researchers David Gangemi and Nicholas Bayless. The company was officially launched as of January 2021 and has been supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation’s Global Grand Challenge, and Glanville’s efforts were featured in the Netflix documentary, Pandemic.
So far, the company has tested its universal flu vaccine in a small study in pigs (who have an immune system similar to humans) and found that this universal vaccine did produce a strong antibody response against not only the strains that formed the vaccine, but additional strains as well, including the 2009 pandemic flu, which was not included in the vaccine. This suggests their vaccine platform has the potential to provide an immune response against future pandemic flu strains.
Glanville thinks this method of vaccine development can be useful against the flu, Covid, HIV, and more. “There are 17 other pathogens that we think our technology is clearly a good choice for,” he says. It’s not necessarily right for all diseases, he cautions. “But if the problem with a pathogen is that it mutates and changes a lot, and that’s why good vaccines haven’t been created yet, that’s where we fit,” he says. “And there’s a lot of pathogens that fall in that category.”