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(part of a special Metro Section on Providence’s “Knowledge Economy”)

Vaccination Equation: The Search Goes On

Brian Mastroianni
Features Editor

Published: Thursday, March 11, 2010
Updated: Sunday, March 14, 2010

Situated across from a parking lot, the two-story grayish-brown building at 146 Clifford Street is an unimposing site, nestled in the heart of Providence’s Jewelry District. The building is home to EpiVax Inc. — a company dedicated to the design of new vaccines and the engineering of therapeutic proteins.

For Anne DeGroot, CEO of EpiVax as well as an adjunct associate professor of pediatrics at Brown, the search for an HIV vaccine is EpiVax’s most important project. She said she has long found HIV care to be “the biggest problem in the world.”

“I wanted to take care of people who had the disease, and I also wanted to make a vaccine for HIV,” she said.

“Originally, this company was founded in hopes of helping to design an HIV vaccine, which is a pretty tall order,” said Business Development Associate Jason Del Pozzo.

The company has internally-funded vaccine programs, and has also received government grants from the National Institutes of Health to support lab research, Del Pozzo said.

EpiVax is currently doing work for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Providence-based Lifespan, he said.

It was the development of computer-based technology that made the study of HIV strains much easier, and made the reality of creating an effective vaccine more tangible, DeGroot said.

“There are probably 200,000 different strains of HIV — you need a computer program to analyze the huge number of gene sequences for that many strains,” she said. “I think of HIV as French and all the strains as dialect, which is something that could only be solved with a computer.”

With a recent HIV vaccine developed in Thailand reported to be 32 percent effective, DeGroot said things are looking much “better than they did a few years ago.”

DeGroot hopes EpiVax will be in the forefront of developing a similar vaccine in the United States. “There is good news in that we are heading in the right direction. We continue to work on it and are making forward progress in our laboratory,” she said.

None of this would be possible without Mayor David Cicilline ’83, DeGroot said.

“He is the one person who is really spearheading the knowledge district plan. If he gets into Congress we’ll see even more access to federal funds — if it wasn’t for his leadership, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.

With economic growth in the Jewelry District, more companies will be able to make the headway that EpiVax is currently making, Del Pozzo said.

“From our standpoint, we think there’s obviously an excellent core and foundation of research and science in the Jewelry District. There is lots of room to grow, lots of land, and it is cheaper to develop in Providence than in Boston,” he said.

As one of the earliest medical start-ups and research facilities to locate in the district, EpiVax only recently starting seeing peer companies move in, DeGroot said.

The growth of the district “has been a little bit slow until last year,” DeGroot said. But now, she said the area is starting to come alive, creating a community of Providence-based researchers.

“Every business is slightly different. What we are contributing to the scene is that we are there, collaborating with one another,” DeGroot said.

“If you don’t have access to a certain piece of technology in your own facility, you automatically know who has it, and you can easily move on to someone else — we are all walking distance to other laboratories,” she said.

EpiVax’s position as a leader in the Jewelry District had rather humble beginnings.

DeGroot first came to Brown in 1992 directly from her Infectious Diseases Fellowship at Tufts University. She received a grant from the National Institutes of Health and moved to an empty lab in Brown’s BioMedical Center. Right away, DeGroot began working with Gabriel Meister ’93 on computer-based analysis of gene sequences. They focused on T-cell epitopes in order to identify triggers for immune responses against diseases. She worked from her lab at Brown, creating what she called a “service-based consulting lab” for groups outside the University.

In order to get more funding for her work, DeGroot applied for a grant from the Slater Technology Fund, which provides startup funding for technology-based Rhode Island companies. “They didn’t give us money until we were actually incorporated,” DeGroot said. Once she had the funding secured, she relocated the base of her company to a less-traditional location — the third floor of her home.

With only two employees — including her founding partner and current Chief Information Officer, William Martin — DeGroot proceeded to obtain more funding and eventually moved the company to a location more suited to a biomedical start-up, she said. After receiving a sizable contract from a pharmaceutical company in 2003, EpiVax moved to its current home on Clifford Street.

Today, the company’s scope is fairly wide. The company is currently working on protein therapeutics including research on Botox and is also developing vaccines for tuberculosis, tularemia, smallpox, H. Pylori, HPV and HIV.

DeGroot envisions an exciting future for the district. “I expect rapid growth in the next few years,” she said.