Four days before the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Italy on January 31, a small biotech firm in the outskirts of Rome announced it was pivoting its business. Researchers at Takis Biotech, which had been focused on cancer treatments, would instead set about developing a vaccine for the rapidly spreading coronavirus.
With the virus now ravaging almost every country on the planet, Takis, led by CEO and Chief Scientific Officer Luigi Aurisicchio, is aiming for human trials of its DNA-based vaccine in the fall. That would make it one of a select few companies — including China’s Sinovac Biotech and Massachusetts-based Moderna Therapeutics, led by billionaire CEO Stéphane Bancel — to have reached that stage in the quest to discover a COVID-19 vaccine. The small firm, which has 25 employees and posted revenues of $2.2 million in 2018, was founded in 2009 by a group of biologists and researchers at the research and development arm of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co, who were forced to reinvent themselves after the company shuttered its Italian research center.
Named after the Ancient Greek word for speed, Takis set out to develop vaccines and therapies for cancer, building on the gene therapy and oncology expertise of its founders. Before shifting to focus on the COVID-19 effort, the company was in talks with regulators to start clinical trials for a personalized cancer vaccine — based on DNA and RNA extracted from an individual patient’s tumor — that prevents the targeted tumor from returning.