La Jolla’s MediciNova teams with Japanese partners in hunt for coronavirus vaccine

Yuichi Iwaki is the founder of biopharmaceutical company MediciNova in La Jolla.
Yuichi Iwaki is the founder of biopharmaceutical company MediciNova in La Jolla, which is working with two Japanese organizations on a coronavirus vaccine.

La Jolla biopharmaceutical company MediciNova has partnered with a Japanese university and biopharmaceutical company in an effort to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“I’m excited,” MediciNova President and Chief Executive Yuichi Iwaki said of the project, which he hopes will have a possible vaccine ready for human trials by December. His team is working with BioComo and Mie University, using the three organizations’ combined research and technology in hopes of creating a vaccine sooner.

“To make a vaccine,” Iwaki said, “the individual needs to develop antibodies,” which the body’s immune system produces to protect against infection following delivery of an antigen, a substance designed to induce an immune response. “The antigen to invoke the antibodies needs to be delivered to the right spot,” he said.

The coronavirus vaccine that MediciNova intends to produce with BioComo and Mie University uses a human parainfluenza virus vector, called BC-PIV, to deliver the coronavirus antigen. BC-PIV is used to create the influenza vaccine, commonly administered through intramuscular injection, “which is just good enough to produce systemic antibodies,” Iwaki said.

“For coronavirus, it is very difficult to deliver it to the right spot,” Iwaki said. “There are so many vaccine programs on the way, but there is some question mark about efficacy.”

Iwaki said his team is developing a nasal spray vaccine for the coronavirus. As the influenza virus has “a very high affinity” to affect the nasal passages, “this is the area coronavirus is attacking, too,” he said, indicating that an intranasal vaccine is “more logical.”

Using PIV as a vaccine vector is a rare project, Iwaki said, as “historically, research has been inactive,” with only about 100 researchers working with PIV in the United States. “Now, I think it’s going to be more popular,” he said.

Aside from the ability of PIV to be used intranasally, “PIV can hold large proteins,” which become the antigens needed to induce an immune response, Iwaki said.

In other vaccine programs, he said, the protein-carrying capacity is limited. “If the antigen is not good enough, antibodies cannot be made,” he said. “That’s why we believe this [PIV] will generate more antibodies locally and systemically,” leading to vaccination success.

Iwaki anticipates that the vaccine, if successful, will be a yearly measure, much like the flu vaccine.

This is the first joint project among MediciNova, BioComo and Mie University. Iwaki said meetings are held via Zoom and that information is transferred quickly among the organizations. Much of the research and background knowledge has been collected by BioComo and Mie, with MediciNova undertaking most of the testing and manufacturing.

“Now the question is how to mass-produce it,” Iwaki said. His team is communicating with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to initiate a trial.

“We need to accumulate a little bit more safety data,” Iwaki said. But “I’m confident we will clear that in a few months and be ready by the end of [2020]” for testing.

“I don’t want to overpromise,” he added.

Iwaki said another benefit of the vaccine program is that the coronavirus is not the only target. “We are able to produce the vaccine against Ebola,” he said, using a slight variation of the proteins.

Iwaki founded MediciNova in 2000 “to develop treatment for diseases that do not have any effective drug.” He said the company’s previous projects have targeted progressive multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, among other diseases.

Also of note is a concurrent program underway at MediciNova to develop a treatment for COVID-19-generated pneumonia. “We have two vehicles to challenge the coronavirus,” Iwaki said.

Iwaki said he’s eager to begin trials for the vaccine.

“We’ve been suffering quite a bit in California, Texas, Florida” because of COVID-19, he said. “We need something. ... Let’s keep moving.”

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