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Vaccine Venture

Biotech entrepreneur Roger Newton is back in the game-and working on a vaccine for Covid-19.

by Ken Garber

From the May, 2020 issue

Biotech entrepreneur Roger Newton is back in the game-and working on a vaccine for Covid-19.

In April's article "The Vindication of Roger Newton," we quoted a colleague as saying that Newton, whose credits include the blockbuster drug Lipitor, had retired to northern Michigan. After the article came out, Newton got in touch to report that he is bankrolling two startups: Esperovax and Espervita. Both take their names from the same Latin root for "to hope" as Esperion Therapeutics, the Newton-founded company that won FDA approval in February for two new cholesterol-lowering drugs, Nexletol and Nexlizet.

Like Esperion, the new companies are based in Ann Arbor. Southeast Michigan "has a tremendous amount of talent to create a very vibrant biotech and pharma industry," Newton says. Espervita is pursuing an innovative approach to treating liver cancer, targeting the same enzyme that Nexletol blocks to stop fat and cholesterol production in the liver. Esperovax is developing oral vaccines, including one against Covid-19.

That's a big challenge. Virtually all vaccines are delivered by needle, because acids in the digestive tract would break them down before they stimulate the desired immune response.

Newton's cofounders invented a way to overcome this hurdle. They first placed partial viral gene sequences inside regular brewer's yeast. Swallowed in pill form, the yeast secretes particles containing the genetic material, which is taken up by cells in the intestine. These cells then manufacture the viral proteins that stimulate the immune response.

Esperovax is still a small operation, however. Operating out of Newton's Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center in Plymouth, where Esperion got its start, it had just five employees as of mid-April. Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials aren't likely to start until next year.

Despite Newton's stellar track record, funding is a challenge. CEO David O'Hagan says that he is talking with potential private investors about seed money, but the coronavirus pandemic has dried up investment in startups.

So far, Newton has provided Esperovax's entire budget. "We are now out raising money to fund these young companies, but it's going to be a tough road," he says. "A lot of people, they're not investing. Venture capital is shutting down. They want to keep their [existing] portfolio companies going, so no new investment."

So for now, Newton's companies are focusing on government funding--especially for the Covid-19 vaccine.     (end of article)

[Originally published in May, 2020.]


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