EpiVax to advance development of vaccine against flu virus with $600,000 federal grant

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Annie De Groot, a research professor at the University of Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of URI.

KINGSTON, R.I., Sept. 21, 2016—University of Rhode Island Research Professor Annie De Groot and her team at EpiVax have been awarded a $600,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to improve a vaccine for the H7N9 avian influenza virus.

De Groot is the co-founder, chief executive officer and chief scientific officer of EpiVax, a Providence-based biotechnology company. She is also the director of the URI Institute for Immunology and Informatics, where she and her colleagues apply bioinformatics tools to develop vaccines for emerging infectious diseases.

The grant was from the Small Business Innovation Research program at the National Institutes of Health. De Groot and URI associate professor Lenny Moise, the director of vaccine research at EpiVax, will oversee the research in collaboration with Ted Ross, director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology at the University of Georgia.

The novelty of the program stems from the concept that vaccines can be “immune engineered’’ to be more effective, De Groot says. Re-engineering the viral proteins to produce more of an immune response without modifying their ability to generate protective antibodies to the original “wild-type” version is the major focus of the work under the new program, she says.

The H7N9 influenza has been called a “stealth virus’’ because of its ability to evade the human immune response, both in natural infections and in vaccine formulations. H7N9 vaccines developed using conventional methods have significantly underperformed in clinical trials. De Groot says that the EpiVax program aims to re-engineer H7N9 viral proteins to be more easily detected by the immune system, resulting in a more potent vaccine product.

The first version of the vaccine from EpiVax will soon enter a trial in Australia in collaboration with Vaxine in Australia and Protein Sciences Corp. in Connecticut.

H7N9 influenza emerged in China in 2013, and has one of the highest mortality rates among all avian influenza viruses for humans. Although sustained human-to-human spread of this virus has yet to occur, the high mortality rate of the virus is of great concern should it develop pandemic potential, De Groot says.

“We are fortunate to have Dr. Annie De Groot and her team conducting innovative biotech research here in Rhode Island,” says U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.  “This federal funding is a boost for EpiVax’s work to engineer new vaccines and an investment in Providence’s life sciences industry.”

EpiVax is a privately-held biotechnology company that focuses on the development of vaccines and immunotherapies for infectious diseases, autoimmunity and cancer. Led by De Groot, the company has had significant success in the fields of immunology and bioinformatics. For more information, visit www.epivax.com.

“I am proud of my hard-working team of scientists and collaborators who were able to put together this award-winning application,’’ says De Groot. “NIH funding has been extremely competitive in the past few years, and this new vaccine development program is truly cutting-edge.’’

De Groot was recently named CEO of the year for the vaccine industry. She has also been recognized as one of the most influential people in an annual survey conducted by the website VaccineNation.

In 2006, she was named “Doctor of the Year’’ by the Rhode Island Medical Women’s Association, and in 2010 she was named one of Rhode Island’s “top doctors’’ by Rhode Island Monthly. She is the founder of Clinica Esperanza/Hope Clinic in Providence, where she is also the volunteer medical director.