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Virus pushes ABQ startups’ primary work to Houston

Dr. Federica Pericle, former CEO of Agilvax, works with measurement devices at a laboratory at the Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque in this file photo. (Kevin Robinson-Avila / Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque startup AgilVax Inc. became another coronavirus victim this month after the pandemic lockdown caused a cash crunch, forcing the company to consolidate its anti-cancer drug development work to Houston, Texas.

The company, which launched in 2011 with technology licensed from the University of New Mexico, has to date raised about $10 million in private equity and federal grants to develop new vaccines for infectious disease and anti-cancer immunotherapies. It has been headquartered at the Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque, employing two scientists there, and four more researchers at a JLABS incubation space in Houston.

But the COVID-19 lockdown blocked company access to lab facilities during the spring, pushing AgilVax to cut costs as it burned through cash. It laid off its two Bioscience Center researchers and ceased most Albuquerque-based operations, save for administrative activities, to instead pump its resources into the Houston operation, said President and CEO Dr. Joseph Patti, a biochemist.

“We lost about four months in the spring because the facilities for animal studies were closed from COVID-19,” Patti said. “Unfortunately, that necessitated our making some tough decisions. We laid off two people here, but our corporate headquarters will remain in Albuquerque and we retain our lab and office space at the Bioscience Center.”

Most of the company’s anti-cancer drug work is already concentrated in Houston, where the JLABS space offers critical laboratory infrastructure. It also collaborates with clinical advisors at the Unversity of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, which is critical as AgilVax develops its technology, Patti said.

The company’s base technology was originally created by UNM microbiologist Bryce Chackerian and molecular geneticist Dave Peabody, who use “virus like particles,” or VLPs, to generate immunological responses from the body to help identify the particles that provoke the most aggressive immune reactions as candidates for vaccines.

The company originally worked to identify and develop new vaccines for infectious diseases, but later pivoted to focus on anti-cancer immunotherapies that showed significant potential against various cancers. It is concentrating first on a new drug to help fight metastatic breast cancer.

The company is working now to raise a $20 million “Series B” round of funding to progress to clinical trials in about 24 months, Patti said.

“If we’re successful with financing, we’d like to continue using the lab space in Albuquerque to do some oncology work there as well,” Patti said.

But fund raising is difficult in the pandemic, said Brian Birk of Sun Mountain Capital, an AgilVax investor and manager of New Mexico State Investment Council funding for local startups.

“The company’s timeline for development shifted after the coronavirus lockdown impeded access to laboratories,” Birk said. “Like many companies during the coronavirus, AgilVax is taking cost-cutting measures while working to raise more money.”


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