PathoVax LLC is a Johns Hopkins University biotech start-up commercializing RGVax, the world’s first comprehensive Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that targets all clinically relevant HPV strains.
In conversation with the co-founder of PathoVax, Dr Weijie Poh.
The Founding Team
PathoVax was founded in late 2014 and is currently managed by myself (Weijie Poh, PhD) and Joshua Wang, PhD. We are both Singaporeans who were awarded fellowships to attend the Pathobiology graduate program at Johns Hopkins University, which is where the RGVax platform was developed.
We also received training in Singapore under esteemed A*STAR investigators Dr Axel Ulrich (Weijie Poh) and Dr Lisa Ng (Joshua Wang). My research background included infectious diseases and cancer, and I have previously managed a biotech startup (Vector BioLabs) in Philadelphia where I oversaw business development, marketing and product expansion.
Joshua is an accomplished HPV vaccine researcher and has published over a dozen publications with the co-inventors of RGVax. He is highly regarded in the development of next-generation HPV vaccines and is well-positioned to explore novel indications with the RGVax technology.
PathoVax commercializes RGVax, a comprehensive HPV vaccine that targets all HPV strains; co-developed at the Johns Hopkins University and the Medical University of Vienna, the patented RGVax technology utilizes the validated HPV virus-like particle (VLP) platform to display a highly conserved, stable HPV epitope (RG1). Animal vaccination studies have confirmed broad-spectrum protection against 33 HPVs, a dramatic improvement over the best vaccine that only protects 9 types.
RGVax is a game-changer because it targets a broad spectrum of HPVs. This gives us the ability to prevent all HPV-related cancers and diseases, as well as their associated healthcare costs. Since RGVax also protects against non-sexually transmitted HPVs, it can be positioned as a vaccine for public health, rather than as an STD vaccine.
The price of current HPV vaccines with three doses ranges from US$299 to US$597; this is because not all countries have made it a compulsory vaccine. Also many countries do not have recommendations for males to receive HPV vaccines, despite the fact that HPV infections result in cancers in males.
Market in Asia?
We expect vaccine manufacturers focusing on the Asian market to be interested in partnering with us to bring RGVax into the clinic.
Existing vaccines target only seven out of 15 cervical cancer-causing HPV strains; these were chosen based on their high prevalence in Caucasian populations. However, it is well known that the most prevalent HPV strains differ across ethnicities and geographical regions. For example, a recent study found that the best available HPV vaccine fails to target two of the most common cervical cancer-causing strains in Singapore. (Tay et al Int J STD AIDS. 2014 Dec;25(14):1013-21; press release). Not only that, RGVax addresses the STD stigma and is an attractive option for regions that lack access to regular Pap screening needed to prevent cervical disease caused by the nonvaccine HPVs.
As Singaporeans, we are actively seeking interest for partners to codevelop RGVax for the Asian population. This will build upon the tremendous momentum we have in the US, as the technology was awarded a National Cancer Institute grant for clinical grade manufacturing and other studies. This support will get us into human safety trials in 2018, and we are looking for clinical collaborators to run subsequent trials in Asia.
Given the potential for RGVax as the best-in-class HPV vaccine, we would work with existing HPV vaccine manufacturers to help expand the market size of this cancer-preventive vaccine. At the same time, we can also partner with other pharmaceutical companies interested in dominating this market with >US$2 billion annual revenues. Takeda, which recently acquired Inviragen (formally SingVax, a Singapore vaccine company), could be a great partner in the Asia region.
These partnerships will have the resources to carry out the necessary efficacy trials to get clinical approval. Finally, we would also reach out to nonprofit organizations such as the Gates Foundation and GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) alliance to bring this lower-cost RGVax into developing nations.
We hope to establish operations in Singapore to develop RGVax with a focus on Asia. Given that the majority of cervical cancer deaths occur outside the US, we need to be aggressive in bringing this cancer-preventive vaccine to Asia. Our goal is a world where HPV infections and cancers become a footnote in history.
We are active in entrepreneurial communities in Baltimore and Boston, having gone through highly-respected accelerator programs. Since its incorporation in 2014, PathoVax has raised over ~US$750,000 (dilutive and non-dilutive sources) and has secured the world-wide exclusive license for RGVax from Johns Hopkins University. At the same time, PathoVax has attracted a great advisory board consisting of biotech entrepreneurs and industry veterans who have brought vaccines and biologics to the clinic, including Roger Pomerantz who used to lead worldwide licensing for Merck. PathoVax has also recruited leading HPV vaccine researchers, responsible for the key discovery behind Gardasil and Cervarix, as scientific advisors.
A timeline of our achievements:
Apr 2014: Winner. JHU entrepreneurship week (US$5K)
Jul 2014: NCI PREVENT Grant (US$5M)
May 2015: Winner. JHU Business plan Competition (US$10K)
Aug 2015: Maryland Innovation Initiative Grant (US$100K)
Oct 2015: RGVax patent approved in the US
Oct 2015: Cornerstone investment (Raised US$250K)
Nov 2015: Alternate Finalist. 43North Business Idea Competition
Nov 2015: Winner. Harvard Innovation Day
Dec 2015: Best in Show, Best of the Best. 1st Pitch Life Science competition
Dec 2015: Semi-Finalist. 2016 America’s OneStart Competition
Feb 2016: Accepted into MassCONNECT
Apr 2016: Secured exclusive RGVax License from JHU
Apr 2016: Rice University Business Plan Competition Finalists (US$1.5K)
Apr 2016: OneStart Americas Finalist
May 2016: Pre-Seed Investment (US$350K)
May 2016: MassChallenge Boston Finalist
Thoughts on biotech/healthcare startups
Biotech entrepreneurship requires significant investments in capital and costs, so the landscape in Asia is still challenging. There are great discoveries being produced by Asian universities every year, so we need more investment and support to advance these breakthroughs into clinical solutions that can directly improve patient lives.
Biotech startups have many challenges and founders have to deal with major difficulties building up a business strategy around great products. In most cases, there isn’t a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to get market feedback and then make improvements, so startups have to do extensive primary market research to formulate a product that gets clinicians excited. Being a founder requires passion, patience and a ton of perseverance.