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New Zealand Innovation Awards: Innovation Excellence in Research, Avalia Immunotherapies

Every day in the US, about 12,000 people between 15 to 24 are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Of those, 2,600 are infected with the HPV16 strain, which is responsible for 50 percent of human cervical cancers and more than 85 percent of HPV-positive head and neck, anal and anal-genital cancers. In sum: it is an epidemic – and one that is only getting worse.

But a Kiwi company may be helping to turn the tide in this battle. Avalia Immunotherapies is a company committed to developing immunotherapies that support the treatment of cancer and other diseases. At its core, the company – which was founded in 2000 – develops therapeutic vaccines that can help to activate immune cells in the body, fighting disease. 

Avalia’s first vaccine treats patients suffering from HPV-associated cancers. It has the potential to trigger immune system responses in patients that are not currently responsive to traditional checkpoint immunotherapy.

So “curing cancer” is one of the most difficult-to-achieve goals a company can have. But Avalia may well be on its way to doing just that.

That’s not an exaggeration, either – at least not if you consider the company has recently presented at such prestigious summits around the world like the European Neoantigen Summit in Amsterdam this past April.

The company is led by chief executive Dr. Shivali Gulab. Based in New York, Dr. Gulab has over nine years’ experience in research, the development of pre clinical assets and partnering of novel candidates developed by leading research groups in New Zealand and the United States. She has also authored a number of peer-reviewed papers during her tenure as senior scientist at the Ferrier Research Institute of Victoria University in Wellington. She is a named inventor on numerous patents in the US, and boasts a PhD in chemistry and bachelor degrees in management, marketing and chemistry.

Dr. Shivali Gulab.

As she said in 2015: “The technology can be used to design new treatments for cancer, as well as infectious disease and allergy. Our initial focus will centre on cancer immunotherapy.”

Alongside Dr. Gulab is chief science officer Dr. Ian Hermans from the prestigious Malaghan Institute and chief technology officer Dr. Gavin Painter of Ferrier Research. 

Both doctors have several patents to their names and have authored dozens of peer-reviewed publications.

Translation: a very smart, ambitious company is led by some very smart, ambitious people.

Avalia may have a global focus and a chief executive based in the Big Apple, but where is its main office? Lower Hutt. 

So the cure for cancer could, conceivably, be developed in small-town Aotearoa. That would be a pretty cool claim to fame.

And these aren’t just highfalutin, pie-in-the-sky claims, either. As Ferrier Research director Richard Furneaux says: “I’ve worked in this field since 1980 and this is the first time I’ve been involved in placing our intellectual property in a New Zealand startup company – that’s how important this research is.

“This is also the beginning of what we hope is a birth of a biomedical initiative for the Wellington region – there’s fantastic biomedical infrastructure here, from research facilities to the excellent District Health Boards. We’re hoping Wellington will become just as well known for its biomedical research as it is for its film industry.”

Evaluator comments:

This has huge potential for the future of cancer treatment – this is genuinely exciting for the healthcare profession. We look forward to seeing Avalia’s groundbreaking potential as you move to human trials. All the best!

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Review overview