A burgeoning seal population in the 1980’s was threatening the fisheries that supported the economy off of Atlantic Canada’s coastal waters. The Canadian Ministry of Fisheries looked to a local expert for help: Warwick Kimmins, PhD, the Dean of Sciences at Nova Scotia’s esteemed Dalhousie University. From this initial problem, the development of what is now IMV’s delivery technology eventually emerged.
Dr. Kimmins huddled with biologists on his faculty, including Robert Brown, PhD. They quickly decided that a contraceptive vaccine could provide a solution for the unbalanced ecosystem. Unfortunately, the technology in place at the time—aqueous solutions requiring a priming shot and a booster—were logistically prohibitive in a marine animal population.
“Even when we could locate them, we found that existing vaccines would not work very well,” Dr. Brown said years later. “We achieved contraception in about 70 percent of the animals after 46 days, but the vaccine wore off in nine months, so you would have had to re-vaccinate every year. That just wasn’t going to be practical.”
Dr. Brown and his colleagues turned to an old school method with a modern twist—using an oil-based emulsion to protect the antigens, thus able to stimulate the immune system for a longer, stronger time period.
It worked. The immune response started more quickly, reached far higher levels of antibody response and tapered far more slowly. Drs. Kimmins, Brown and their team found that they could achieve contraception in less than half the time; the level of contraception was much higher, closer to 90% rather than 70%; and the strength of the formulation tapered much more slowly, lasting more than 10 years rather than nine months.
From there, Dr. Kimmins and his team were able to convert these results to other large mammalian species: wild horses overgrazing the national parks on the Great Plains, deer in Ontario, feral cats in the alleyways of Toronto and monkeys in Hong Kong.
In addition to making an effective solution with this new technology, Dr. Brown and his team made the vaccine delivery technology commercially viable by transferring the method from contraception to infectious diseases. In addition to tackling issues caused by outbreaks of serious diseases like distemper and rabies, the team made the commercial market for this new technology big enough to support the costs of development and manufacturing.
Thinking their process could revolutionize veterinary medicine, they spun the technology out of the University and formed Immunovaccine Technologies Inc. (IVT) in 2000. Dr. Kimmins was the company’s chief executive, and Dr. Brown as the first chief scientific officer. IVT proved to be the predecessor to today’s IMV Inc.
From there, it was a natural step to test the applicability of this delivery technology in the most demanding large mammalian species: people.
Could the technology translate the same standard of immunogenicity results to humans? Their experience certainly implied that the delivery method, using oil rather than water, could offer fast, strong and durable protection across many different subjects, and many different diseases.
By 2004, strong intellectual property and additional investment provided by a group of Halifax business leaders were in place at IVT. Proof-of-concept work began in humans, with the initial focus on infectious diseases. And, at this point, Dr. Kimmins’ original emulsion-based delivery formulation morphed into the Company’s current delivery technology, with one key difference from its predecessor: the complete removal of water from the (now completely oil-based) delivery formulation emerged as the key value driver and scientific differentiator for this technology.
With this technology in place, the team re-focused development efforts on one of the greatest areas of unmet medical need: human cancers. Using antigens from various sources, they were able to create formulations that showed promise. To raise additional development capital, they turned to the public markets, launching on the Toronto Venture Exchange in 2009 under the name ‘Immunovaccine,’ and with the ticker IMV.
Soon after going public, the team acquired the survivin antigens from Merck KGaA. Using traditional vaccine delivery technology, Merck had been unable to generate sufficient immunogenicity from these antigens to justify further development. Reformulating the survivin antigens in its delivery platform, IMV saw in preclinical research that late-stage human cancers could be targeted. Thus the Company’s first clinical candidate, DPX-Survivac, emerged.
In 2010, the company initiated the first human clinical trials of DPX-Survivac. Unfortunately, Dr. Kimmins passed away before he could see this milestone.
“We believed then, as we do now, that that the technology held almost unlimited promise,” said Dr. Brown. “We had both seen how effective our infectious disease vaccines had been in preclinical work. When the human trial results began to come in, they confirmed just what we had expected – that the oil delivery method would turn the immune system on in a safe, effective and long-lasting way.”
-IMV History and Dr. Brown interview as recounted by Mr. Albert Scardino, an early investor in IMV,
former Board Chairman, and Member of the Board of Directors since 2010