Campus News

Startup 101: Vaccine biotech, from Georgia to Silicon Valley

Innovation Gateway held its latest Startup 101 presentation with Marty Moore, two-time UGA alumnus and CEO of Meissa Vaccines, on Oct. 22 in the Delta Innovation Hub.

Meissa is in clinical trials with two vaccines, one to guard against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the other against COVID-19. These vaccines were created with new technology developed by Moore, who used his Startup 101 appearance to discuss how vaccines are developed, the differences between vaccine types and how vaccines interact with the body to protect it.

“We’re currently focused on pediatric vaccines. I’ve worked on RSV for almost 20 years, and that’s a pediatric pathogen. I’m very passionate about pediatric health and that’s the focus of our company,” said Moore, who earned his bachelor’s in 1995 from UGA and his Ph.D. in 2003.

As both co-founder and CEO of Meissa, Moore is an example of a university researcher who followed his research—a technology called AttenuBlock—into the marketplace and created a business around it. The proprietary technology uses synthetic biology to generate live, attenuated vaccine candidates.

Before starting Meissa, Moore was an associate professor at Emory University and director of the Center for Childhood Infections and Vaccines at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. It was there that he developed AttenuBlock, which was recognized as Emory’s Innovation of the Year in 2013.

All of Messia’s vaccines are designed for intranasal administration. Different from intramuscular vaccines, intranasal vaccines come with no needle. Sprayed up the nose, they may offer superior protection than other vaccines on the market.

“Immunity itself is super complicated,” Moore said. “Humans have about 25,000 genes, and approximately 10% of those are involved in immunity. You can separate immunity into two types: mucosal, or what’s happening in the upper respiratory tract, and what’s happening in your lungs, or systemically.”

Moore said natural infections lead to both mucosal and systemic immune responses because the virus replicates in all parts of the body.

Intramuscular vaccines, like the mRNA vaccines used for SARS-CoV-2, only offer a systemic immune response. While those vaccines do protect the lungs and provide some immunity against COVID-19, they do not prevent transmission of the virus because they do not generate a mucosal immune response.

Historically, Moore says, it has been challenging to develop intranasal vaccines. The upper respiratory tract contains special immune cells not found in the rest of the body, and the tract acts as a large filter to prevent debris, bacteria and viruses from entering the body. Most common vaccine technology, including mRNA, struggle to make it past this filter with intranasal administration.

Live viruses are effective at getting through the upper respiratory tract and then causing disease. Scientists have developed ways to weaken or attenuate live viruses to perform a delicate balancing act and create an effective immune response without causing disease.

While live-attenuated viruses have helped guard against polio, measles, chicken pox and many other common illnesses, it is difficult research.

This is where AttenuBlock comes into play.

As Moore explains it, the technology allows Meissa to make precise changes to codons, small sections of DNA responsible for protein expression. Through a process called “Genetic Codon Deoptimization,” scientists can quickly and accurately make small changes to viral codons and engineer a virus with a deoptimized ability to cause disease while still generating a strong immune response.

Meissa has released promising clinical data on its RSV vaccine that shows an immune response like a natural virus without shedding or illness. He said the company will be releasing interim data on its SARS-CoV-2 vaccine at the 2022 World Vaccine Congress in San Diego.

During his Startup 101 presentation, Moore also spoke about his experience starting a business and offered advice to other beginning entrepreneurs.

Innovation Gateway helps UGA researchers move their research breakthroughs into the marketplace through licensing and startups. To do this, Innovation Gateway fosters a network of industry, economic development and university partners. The Startup 101 lecture series is designed to bring in experts and entrepreneurs like Moore to share real-world knowledge with others to help them reach their full potential for public benefit. This particular event also was part of the university’s Signature Lecture series and was co-sponsored by the Office of Research and Innovation Gateway.