By Helen Graves
It’s a wonder, but yet no surprise, that Annie De Groot, EpiVax founder, CEO and CSO, is pioneering new fields in infectious and autoimmune diseases while also paying attention to the least served – and doing so in so many ways.
“What explains my life is: Stop talking and start acting,” De Groot says. “I do feel it’s important to me not just to have the idea, but actually to do it, live it, breathe it. That’s what has driven most of my work.”
An example: De Groot is collaborating with local organizations in Mali, West Africa, helping run an HIV clinic and participating in community HIV prevention activities with the expectation of someday conducting an HIV vaccine trial there. Her work on the HIV vaccine has already driven the formation of the company EpiVax and, also, the nonprofit Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS (GAIA) Vaccine Foundation.
As founder of the GAIA Vaccine Foundation, De Groot is continuing her work on the AIDS vaccine that launched her foray into business and advocating for HIV/AIDS care on an international basis.
Also the founder of the Institute for Immunology Informatics (I’Cubed) at the University of Rhode Island, De Groot is ensuring the next generation of vaccine and biologics researchers.
And then there is Clinica Esperanza, the free clinic serving the Hispanic population in Providence, and the standards for HIV care in prisons – both De Groot accomplishments and evidence of her continued commitment to the clinical side of her work.
De Groot has a long history of doing well and doing good – the “no surprise” part of her story.
As a student at Smith College, De Groot was so incensed by her research into the 1910 Flexner Report, which basically shut down any medical school teaching women at a time when women comprised 50 percent of health care providers, that she vowed to equalize the opportunity for women.
“I felt if I wanted to have an impact that I should go into medicine and address the disparities both from the provider perspective and also the patient perspective,” De Groot says, “that trying to get more women in medicine would improve health care for women.”
Initially starting out in OB-GYN at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, De Groot was outraged over the harassment-like treatment of patients. The complaint she wrote to the head of the department only landed her in hot water.
Then, when De Groot spent her fourth year in medical school in Africa to witness “medical care on the front line,” she found her calling.
“It was clear to me that in infectious disease you could make a huge difference in the world: You could provide access to medications that were pretty commonplace,” she says.
“Eventually I got into vaccines because it seemed like vaccines were the one intervention that would have an immediate impact on human health in countries where health care was pretty poor.”
De Groot’s work with vaccines and immunoinformatics – (similar to bioinformatics but more focused on immune response) – began with a National Institutes of Health fellowship. After a short stint at New England Medical Center, she moved to Brown University Medical School to establish the TB/HIV Research Laboratory.
“As a young woman trying to find my way, I had no idea you should negotiate a package when you move to a new job,” De Groot says. “I started with a computer and an empty lab.”
Using her salary as a clinician to hire her first lab technician, De Groot ultimately built her operation to 14 staff members.
In 1998, realizing the potential demand for the vaccine design technology developed in the lab, she started EpiVax on the third floor of her house with business partner Bill Martin.
Seed money for the initial vaccine work came from foundation and SBIR grants. To date, EpiVax has generated enough money with contracts and grants to proceed without venture capital. Vaccine research is underway for HIV, TB, smallpox, influenza, HPV and other diseases.
In 2002, the focus at EpiVax also turned to pioneering the screening of protein therapeutics for success in the clinic, which today accounts for half of the business at $2.5 million a year. “Our potential for growth is probably 20 or 30 fold in the next couple of years,” De Groot says.
Until 2006, De Groot was splitting her time 80/20 between the lab at Brown University and EpiVax, respectively, but then the university asked her to choose: the lab or the company. Brown wasn’t paying her salary, so financially the choice was easy. The problem was, it meant closing the lab. “It was difficult due to the fact that the whole concept behind the laboratory was to train new vaccine researchers,” she says.
De Groot, as to be expected, proved unstoppable. Two years later, the University of Rhode Island asked her to establish the Institute for Immunology and Informatics in Providence for designing better vaccines and protein products while allowing researchers to learn and grow and advance the new field of immunoinformatics.
In keeping with De Groot’s success in grant awards, I’Cubed has recently received a $13 million NIH grant to develop a multidisciplinary program for using innovative vaccine design tools increating vaccines for biodefense and infectious disease.
De Groot also expects I’Cubed to develop, along with its AIDS and TB research, neglected tropical disease vaccines for illnesses such as river blindness and sleeping sickness.
“A great place to do that work is the academic setting, where grad students can come in and work for practically nothing and trade their training experience for working on a vaccine that would be too high risk for a private company,” she says.
Meanwhile, back at EpiVax, where De Groot now spends 80 percent of her time, she is most enthusiastic about the discovery, thanks to the company’s informatics tools, of a small protein called Tregitope that suppresses the body’s immune response.
“It is actually one of the natural off-switches of the body, and this off-switch can be used for turning off the immune response to a transplanted organ, to the immune response to any autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis or type 1 diabetes,” De Groot says.
Tregitope has so many potential applications that EpiVax added six new people to the research team this summer, bringing its numbers up to 20, and signed a collaboration with Roche for the Tregitope technology that could significantly alter the way the drug developer makes its therapeutic protein products.
“If I were to contribute two things to the world, one would be this Tregitope technology that has so much promise and the other would be the GAIA HIV vaccine that started our company,” De Groot says.
While it should come as no surprise, considering De Groot’s passion, drive and capability, the wonder of it all, really, is that one person is doing so much for so many in multiple ways. To that, De Groot advises, “Decide what you want to do and just do it. Never underestimate the power of one individual to change the world.”