COVID-19 vaccine developed by UB startup approved for human trials

UB professor Jon Lovell works in the lab with Pop Bio co-founder Kevin Carter.

UB researcher Jonathan Lovell (right) and Kevin Carter are among the co-founders of POP Biotechnologies. File photo, taken prior to the pandemic. Credit: Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo.

By Jessica Szklany and Cory Nealon

Release Date: February 23, 2021

“Commencing first-in-human trials is a monumental step forward for our technology. ”
Jonathan Smyth, president
POP Biotechnologies

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A COVID-19 vaccine candidate, under development by UB spinoff company POP Biotechnologies and South Korean biotech company EuBiologics, is moving into human trials in South Korea.

The candidate, called EuCorVac-19, is a liquid injection that can be stored and distributed at refrigerated temperatures, potentially making it easier to distribute and store than some current vaccines which must be frozen.

It was approved in January by the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to enter a combined phase 1 and 2 clinical trial after generating strong immune responses in animal models.

The first phase will involve 50 healthy adults in Korea to evaluate the safety, tolerance and immune response to the vaccine. For the second phase, the number of participants will increase to 230 adults to further evaluate immune response and dosage. The goal is to begin a wide-scale phase 3 trial later this year.

“Commencing first-in-human trials is a monumental step forward for our technology. Achieving this critical milestone provides validation towards not only solving this unprecedented global crisis, but also provides invaluable support towards our platform’s development, further enabling the creation of new vaccines with tremendous potential to alleviate suffering worldwide,” says POP Biotechnologies President Jonathan Smyth.

Smyth co-founded the company in 2015 with then-fellow UB student Kevin Carter and Jonathan Lovell, a faculty member whose lab developed the biotechnology that is the basis of the vaccine candidate. Both Smyth, JD from the UB School of Law, and Carter, PhD from the Department of Biomedical Engineering, are UB alumni.

The company’s development of a vaccine delivery platform called SNAP (Spontaneous Nanoliposome Antigen Particleization) is what caught the attention of EuBiologics, a publicly traded firm in South Korea. The platform consists of specialized liposomes, first developed in Lovell’s lab and licensed to POP Biotechnologies through UB’s Technology Transfer office, that bind to and improve the effectiveness of vaccine antigens, which are molecules that prompt the body to produce antibodies that neutralize disease.

Prior to the pandemic, POP BIO’s primary focus for the platform was on cancer therapies and a vaccine against HIV — research that has been supported by funds from UB Center for Advanced Technology in Big Data and Health Sciences (UB CAT). At the start of the pandemic, POP BIO swiftly transitioned SNAP to discover effective vaccine candidates for COVID-19.

“Because SNAP is a vaccine platform technology, it could be applicable to any vaccine-related indication, for both chronic and infectious diseases. In-human testing for the COVID-19 vaccine will de-risk the technology for other indications too,” said Lovell, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint program of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The move from nascent startup to a biotech company whose technology is now in human trials comes after years of hard work and innovation, as well as support from UB’s entrepreneurship and technology transfer programs, from government agencies, and from investors.

In 2015, POP BIO won the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, created by the UB School of Management and the UB Office of Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships. It then attracted the interest of America Online co-founder Steve Case, who along with local investor z80 Labs, invested $100,000 in POP BIO in 2015 through the Rise of the Rest business plan contest.

Since 2017, the company has worked from UB’s Incubator @ Baird, a research park for startup companies. It continues to work on the HIV vaccine with Scripps Research, a project that is supported by a $600,000 National Institutes of Health contract. The team was recently awarded additional funds through UB CAT to build on the SNAP vaccine platform and explore indicators in Alzheimer’s disease.

A connection made by Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships resulted in an introduction to a key partner for POP Biotechnologies, according to Lovell. “BEP provided an entrepreneur-in-residence, who took us to a business conference where we met EuBiologics, the South Korean company who is our partner in developing the COVID-19 vaccine. We would not be at this phase in the vaccine trial without EuBiologics showing an interest in our technology and leading the charge.”

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