The biotech startup was originally focusing on cancer therapies but switched gears in March 2020.
“We need to keep going and develop more countermeasures — more broadly effective second-wave vaccines, therapeutics and tests. ... The virus is very good at generating surprises,” said co-founder and CEO Hannu Rajaniemi.
The team at Helix has developed a vaccine that they hope will be ready for clinical trials this year, and get approval in early 2022.
“The reason we got into this ... was that we were worried about mutated SARS-CoV-2 strains able to evade vaccine immunity,” Rajaniemi says. “That is exactly the scenario that is now playing out with the South African, Brazilian and other emerging variants.” The current vaccines available in the US only provide immunity against the novel coronavirus strain that originally swept over the globe.
“In this crisis, the role of a start-up is to pursue more technically challenging, second-generation approaches and find solutions that the less agile bigger players might miss,” he says. He hopes his startup's booster vaccine will “provide much broader immunity.”
However, tackling this issue is “an extremely challenging problem technically,” Rajaniemi says. It is not easy to build a single vaccine that can adapt and provide immunity against different strains of a virus. To help make this process easier, the startup has invented “two completely new vaccine technologies” and filed for patents.
“Essentially, we have a ‘zoom’ function and an ‘amplify’ function for mRNA vaccines,” he says. “We can make vaccines both more targeted and more powerful than was previously possible.”
The first technology makes vaccines more accurate. “Traditional vaccines are blunt instruments. You show the immune system a bit of the virus — like the spike protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses to infect cells — and [the body] generates antibodies against it,” Rajaniemi said. "Those antibodies are essentially random.” HelixNano's tech specifically identifies cell structure that "matters the most for preventing infection,” according to Rajaniemi.
To help explain this in layman's terms, Rajaniemi offered an example. “Imagine the virus is the Death Star. To blow it up you need to hit a very small target — the thermal exhaust port,” he said. “Your X-Wings [starfighters] could just randomly fire at the whole Death Star, but you would have to get very, very lucky to destroy it.” The pivotal point in this new technology is concentrating "all your fire on the exhaust port, you have a much better chance — even if your shots get less accurate as the virus mutates.”
The second technology involves multiplying the body's immune response to a specific vaccine target by a factor of 100. The combination of these two factors is what makes up the new mutation-resistant vaccine.