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Fireside Chat with Dr. Kim of Inovio Pharmaceuticals: Immunotherapies and Vaccines

February 13, 2017
The first Fireside Chat at the 2017 BIO CEO & Investor Conference was with President and CEO of Inovio Pharmaceuticals, J. Joseph Kim, Ph.D. Moderating the discussion was BIO’s own Phyllis Arthur, Managing Director of Infectious Diseases and Diagnostics Policy.

Dr. Kim’s impressive background must be noted! It includes an MIT undergraduate degree, a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from The Wharton School. He is an immunologist by training and previously developed vaccines for Merck & Co. In 2009, Kim co-founded Inovio Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company leading the world in developing novel immunotherapies and vaccines. With their DNA-based technology, they are developing products for vaccines against major emerging infectious disease and treatments for a variety of cancers.

Kim shared two fundamental benefits of their DNA approach to treating and preventing cancers and infectious diseases. First, they deliver pure DNA in pure water making them stable at room temperature. Secondly, their technology uses a delivery system that allows the reception of genetic codes into patients and properly activates the immune system. Kim says this combo makes Inovio’s products safer and pure leaving nothing but genetic code behind in the body. Additionally, unlike other cell-based therapies, they can do direct injections resulting in faster positive results.

VGX-3100 is Inovio’s lead program and their first target oncology product for treating HPV 16 and 18– those related with pre-cancerous lesions of the cervix. “But why HPV?” asked Arthur. Kim said it was due to the prevalence of the infection and ripple effect of diseases it causes in women and men. While preventive vaccines are available, Kim noted that of the highest marketed cohorts (pre-teens) have low vaccination rates - only 40% of girls and 20% of boys. Kim’s entrepreneurial spirit saw this need and it prompted a desire to create a non-invasive, non-surgical vaccine against HPV using T-cell responses. Recently, Phase 2b data was approved, but Phase 3 is on a partial clinical hold for the development of a new custom device.

DNA therapies isn’t all Inovio is known for. They have a long history of successful partnerships. Most notable is their 2015 strategic partnership with Medimmune to develop a cancer vaccine. In a Phase1 clinical study, they found their technology could turn a cold tumor into a hot tumor - cold tumors being resistant to T-cells infiltrating and hot tumors allowing T-cells to enter. When it comes to immunotherapy – one of the biggest cancer advancements - hot tumors are vital for successful treatment using checkpoint inhibitor therapy. Kim calls the turning of cold tumors into hot “The Holy Grail!” and this partnership is developing therapies that do just that! While this partnership is very successful, not all are. So, Arthur asked, “What factors should be taken into account when deciding whether to pursue a partnership or project?” To which Kim laughed said, “Well, cash always speaks volumes.” The whole room had a chuckle, but Kim resumed by listing that financial terms are always important, as is the quality and character of a company, their presence in your field, and how the partnership can elevate you to the next big thing.

When it comes to vaccines, Inovio’s DNA platform shows great promise for rapid response development of new vaccines for emerging infectious diseases. In late 2015, touched by the impact Zika was having on newborns, Inovio decided to engage. In a matter of days (yes, you read that right, days!) they had a vaccine. They were one of the first companies to have a Zika vaccine go into human trials. They went from concept design to first dose in six months – probably the fastest in history for vaccines Kim stated.

When it comes to our global health, Inovio is a breakthrough company changing the pharmaceutical landscape. It's biotech companies like Inovio that will give us the vital ability for rapid response to infectious diseases, and help cure and prevent diseases faster and safer.

Tune in tomorrow to see what happens on day two of #BIOCEO17!