Wistar Institute and South Korea’s GeneOne Partner on Nipah Virus Drugs

By Mark Terry
May 12, 2023

The Wistar Institute, based in Philadelphia, teamed up with South Korean biotech company GeneOne Life Sciences to develop small molecule drugs against Nipah virus. First discovered in 1999 in pigs and people in Malaysia and Singapore, Nipah virus is a zoonotic virus that is classified as being of high concern due to its high lethality and person-to-person spread.

Luis J. Montaner, Kean Family Professor, Director of The Wistar Institute’s HIV-1 Immunopathogenesis Laboratory and leader of the HIV Research Program, Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, told BioBuzz, the World Health Organization identified Nipah as a priority pathogen in 2015. It can have almost 50% mortality rate, even though there have only been about 700 cases so far worldwide.

Luis J. Montaner, Director of The Wistar Institute’s HIV-1 Immunopathogenesis Laboratory (SOURCE: The Wistar Institute)

“It can be transmitted between humans and it’s primarily through exposure to contaminated food items. All bats pretty much have this virus, even though only 1% of them are actually transmitted,” Montaner said.

Since 1999, Nipah outbreaks have occurred in Bangladesh and India.

These outbreaks have been linked to severe neurological disease and mortality ranging from 40 to 70%.

Kar Muthumani, Chief Scientific Officer of GeneOne Life Sciences, formerly with The Wistar Institute, said, “Nipah virus is similar to the RNA viruses, which is also similar to SARS. It has slowly migrated toward Burma and India, mainly spreading through the bat, especially the fruit-eating bats, which are very common in India, particularly among mango trees and palm trees.”

Muthumani notes the last major outbreak was in 2018 in India. Due to government intervention, they were able to halt the spread of the disease within a month.

Kar Muthumani, Chief Scientific Officer of GeneOne Life Sciences (SOURCE: The Wistar Institute)

“The WHO believes it has the potential to be another outbreak or pandemic. That’s why this is considered a pathogen of interest, to emphasize the need for a vaccine or therapeutic intervention. Like a lot of companies, we’ve been focusing on making a vaccine as well as a therapeutic intervention.”

Wistar, a 2023 BioBuzz Award Winner, has expertise in small molecule discovery and development. GeneOne has expertise in vaccine development and clinical trial development. “So we’re joining the two pieces that will increase the likelihood that this will move quickly towards a human therapeutic, as opposed to being an academic exercise or an exercise that industry needs to retool its base of discovery in order to generate the same expertise we already have,” Montaner said.

There are currently no approved vaccines or drugs to fight Nipah. Muthumani and colleagues recently demonstrated a synthetic nucleic acid vaccine that worked in laboratory mice.

Muthumani noted that the vaccine came about when he was a faculty member at Wistar. “We did studies in an animal model where we were able to show this vaccine potentially induced greater immune response. But unfortunately, due to the level of these pathogens, which is considered a BSL-3 (Biosafety Level 3), which can only be studied directly in a government-regulated laboratory, we were only able to test the immune response, not the efficacy. We’re also investigating an mRNA vaccine in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania.”

There are several different groups working to develop a vaccine. Montaner points out, “The premise of a vaccine is to try and provide broad coverage before an outbreak. GeneOne is working on different strategies, and so are other teams worldwide. But our focus with this particular initiative is to come up with something that could be implemented upon an outbreak. And that is not mutually exclusive to a vaccine.”

The approach to developing a small molecule therapeutic involves ways of preventing the virus from entering cells. The two organizations have spent the last six months organizing their strategy and defining how they will work together and what milestones they expect to hit.

“So we are now going to follow the plan that we have implemented for us to follow. So we hope that by the first year we’ll have at least five small molecules identified that could block the pathways of entry for the virus,” Montaner said. “After that it will be a process of optimizing those because you have to develop the compounds for druggability properties, not just for their ability to have in vitro activity against the virus. And third, doing in vivo work, eventually moving it into the clinic.”