URI’s Providence Biotechnology Center expands with research initiative led by EpiVax CEO

Posted on
UPDATE: July 28, 2009
Researcher awarded $13 million
to develop vaccines for emerging
infectious diseases

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – February 12, 2009 – The development of vaccines against AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, dengue fever and other diseases ravaging the developing world is the focus of a new research initiative at the University of Rhode Island’s Providence Biotechnology Center.

The Institute for Immunology and Informatics is led by Annie De Groot, M.D., chief executive officer of EpiVax, Inc. and a leader in immunology research. It will apply cutting edge bioinformatics tools to accelerate the development of treatments and cures for diseases identified as “neglected” by the research community.

“Tropical diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and dengue fever are a huge problem in the developing world,” De Groot said. “We have developed technical solutions to developing vaccines for these diseases. We’ll work on some of the vaccines at our new URI lab, while also providing access to the technology to the global research community working on vaccine development for emerging infectious diseases.”

The new institute is URI’s first research laboratory at its Providence campus, enabling it to more easily take advantage of partnership opportunities at the nearby hospitals, Brown University, and other life sciences companies in the city.

“The Institute for Immunology and Informatics represents a critically important opportunity for URI to have an essential science research presence in Providence. This allows us to be a part of the exploding biomedical nexus there,” said Jeff Seemann, dean of the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences and the driving force behind its biotechnology initiatives. “This is a positive step toward increasing the R&D capacity at the University, and it will serve to augment the life sciences activities taking place on our Kingston campus as well.”

De Groot has created the new institute with long-time associate Leonard Moise, director of vaccine research at EpiVax, along with URI professors Thomas Mather, a vector-borne disease researcher, and Marta Gomez-Chiarri, a fisheries researcher developing vaccines for fish, and De Groot’s father Leslie, an internationally recognized endocrinology researcher. The institute will also be guided by Greg Paquette, URI’s director of biotechnology programs.

According to De Groot, who will hold an appointment as a professor in the URI Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, the mission of the institute will be to improve human and animal health by applying the power of immunomics — informatics, genomics and immunology — for the design of better vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics.

“We are extremely pleased to have a great lineup of collaborators and advisors, and we plan to partner with industry and academia to explore new technologies so as to accelerate the proof-of-concept and commercial development of immune-based therapies,” De Groot said.

In addition to their research, De Groot is teaching graduate and undergraduate classes in the design of vaccine and protein therapeutics, while Moise teaches protein production courses. Several URI graduates are already at work in their laboratory, and many more will be joining them as additional grants are awarded. The lab is also expected to be a magnet for attracting additional immunology researchers to URI.

“Dr. De Groot is a welcome new addition to the URI Providence Biotechnology Center,” said Paquette. “She will add a new level of excitement to the graduate biotechnology courses, and we expect that students enrolled in her classes will be able to secure higher paying jobs in biotechnology due to her extensive linkages with regional and national biotechnology companies.”

In 1998, De Groot and fellow researcher Bill Martin founded EpiVax with funds from the Slater Biotechnology Fund, and the company has prospered without requiring venture capital. De Groot and Martin have succeeded in establishing the company as a leader in the field of immunoinformatics and have grown the business by 60 percent per year. Formerly on the faculty at Brown University for 10 years, De Groot has a proven track record for receiving grant awards, having won more than $15 million in federal and foundation research funds in the last 14 years.

De Groot and Martin have developed a sophisticated vaccine design tool called EpiMatrix that rapidly scans sequences of proteins for peptide candidates that are highly likely to be useful in the development of vaccines. This technology can speed up the process of vaccine development, and it is in great demand by pharmaceutical companies and biomedical researchers around the world.

De Groot has received national and international recognition for her innovative “genome–to–vaccine” approach, and has been a vocal advocate for tiered pricing of HIV and TB vaccines. She founded the Global Alliance to Immunize against AIDS (GAIA) Vaccine Foundation, and subsequently built a healthcare clinic in Mali, one of the poorest nations in the world. Her work on the development of an HIV vaccine is ongoing in Mali, with the support of her GAIA Vaccine Foundation.

De Groot sees opportunities to provide URI students with a range of experiences, from bench-based research to product development and work in the field, evaluating vaccine use and acceptance in developing countries. “I’m proud to be part of an institution that is so dedicated to workforce development in Rhode Island, and I look forward to working with Dean Seemann to move URI to the forefront of the biotechnology revolution in this state.”