URI professor awarded $212,000 grant to hire summer research fellows for vaccine studies

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – July 6, 2010 – Thanks to a $212,000 grant awarded to a University of Rhode Island researcher through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 14 students and recent graduates have been hired as summer research fellows to be trained to help conduct infectious disease vaccine research.

Annie De Groot, URI research professor of biotechnology, was awarded the grant as a supplement to the $13 million TRIAD grant she received last year to collaborate with researchers from URI, Brown University and Lifespan on the development of vaccines against Lyme disease, Hepatitis C and other diseases.

“We have had a hard time hiring qualified people to conduct vaccine research under our TRIAD grant, so this new grant has enabled us to hire people and train them to do the work,” said De Groot, who also serves as chief executive officer of the Providence-based biotechnology company EpiVax. “We’ll be mentoring these students and providing them with the training and connections to guide them in the next steps of their careers.”

The summer research fellows include students from URI, Brown, the University of Connecticut and Bates College. They are undergoing two weeks of classroom and hands-on training in the use of immunoinformatics tools and novel techniques for vaccine research, as well as biosafety training and an ethics course. This will be followed by eight weeks of training working in a vaccine research laboratory.

“They are going to leave here with a unique set of skills that will give them a better chance at future jobs and graduate school,” De Groot said. “We’re preparing them for the knowledge economy.

“It’s all about exposure,” she added. “Students need to see the breadth of activity that goes on in a lab like ours so they can imagine themselves doing this work. We’re giving them a broad review of biotech research and methods.”

Each of the fellows is getting hands-on experience working with the following faculty members or senior researchers on critical issues related to vaccine development: Steve Gregory at Lifespan on dendritic cell manipulation for the development of a vaccine against Hepatitis C; Steve Moss at Lifespan on T cell isolation from endoscopy specimens for a vaccine against H. Pylori, which causes gastric ulcers, peptic ulcers and related problems; Lenny Moise at URI on the development of a vaccine delivery system; Thomas Mather at URI on tick saliva harvesting and proteomics for a vaccine against Lyme disease; and De Groot and Bill Martin at EpiVax on a multipath binding project related to engineered biowarfare/bioterror agents.

The summer research fellows program is based at the Institute for Immunology and Informatics (I-Cubed) at the URI Providence campus. Established in 2009, the Institute applies cutting edge bioinformatics tools to accelerate the development of treatments and cures for immune-system diseases like HIV and tuberculosis. The Institute also aims to quickly make these tools available to the global research community for the development of vaccines for tropical diseases and other infectious diseases.

“We are excited to have so many talented students working with us this summer, and it is likely that some of these students will be hired by I’Cubed after they complete their training,” said Denise Spero, co-director of the Institute.

De Groot’s TRIAD grant (Translational Immunology Research and Accelerated Vaccine Development) from the National Institutes of Health integrates vaccine design studies in silico (via computer simulation) with in vitro and in vivo research.