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New research, same mission: ‘improve human health’

EPI CENTER: EpiVax founder and CEO Anne S. De Groot described herself as a “physician [who wants] to make products that help human health everywhere.”
EPI CENTER: EpiVax founder and CEO Anne S. De Groot described herself as a “physician [who wants] to make products that help human health everywhere.” PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL PERSSON
By Harold Ambler
Contributing Writer
1/13/14

If “immunoinformatics” ever becomes a household word, the team at Providence’s EpiVax Inc., led by CEO Dr. Anne S. De Groot, will likely be a central reason why.

Immunoinformatics refers to the combination of conventional immunological work done in the lab, with “informatics,” the processing of huge troves of DNA and other protein-based data, to custom-design vaccines and therapeutic responses to disease.

Using proprietary software, EpiVax – which last month announced a research partnership with a German company, Biotest AG – battles a wide range of public-health problems. On the roster of diseases and conditions at the top of the company’s list in the past 12 months have been: the H7N9 flu strain in China, Pompe disease (a life-threatening buildup of glycogen in the muscles), hemophilia A, multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes and allergy.

Depending on the illness, and depending on whether it is being treated or prevented, EpiVax’s goal is either to trigger a specific response in the immune system or to prevent the immune system from getting involved in the first place.

For instance, for those with hemophilia A, a coagulant known as Factor VIII was first thought to be a yearned-for cure of the disease, and for some it was. A blood-clotting protein concentrated from donated blood plasma, Factor VIII gives hemophiliacs the ability to lead relatively normal lives, albeit burdened by injections, including, for certain patients (particularly children), IV ports. For some people being treated with the harvested Factor VIII, though, the therapy eventually produced an immune response that made the treatment stop working.

The promise of immunoinformatics is to step into a conundrum such as that presented by Factor VIII therapy rejection and make the treatment safe. That involves the introduction of Tregitopes, a sequence of amino acids that serves as an immune-system “off switch.” Biotest AG, which specializes in immunology and hematology, is partnering with EpiVax to pursue the creation of the safer Factor VIII product, in recognition of EpiVax’s cutting-edge work in the field.

De Groot and EpiVax Chief Information Officer William Martin discovered the Tregitopes in a common human protein, IgG, when performing routine immunoinformatics analysis of the protein for some clients.

“We kept finding the same short strings of amino acids in the IgGs, and my team would come to me and they would say that the same signature is there again,” De Groot said. “Then we would report to the client that their protein had a very common signature and the body has probably seen it a lot, so it would not cause any problems. But finally we made this ‘aha!’ leap and realized that the signature was not an on-switch for immune response, it was there because it was suppressing an immune response. It was an off-switch.”

Tregitopes are the latest focus of the company’s work, and may, if De Groot and her team are right, prove uniquely successful for inducing tolerance to protein drugs, preventing organ and tissue-transplant rejection, and treating autoimmune diseases.

EpiVax, located in Prividence’s so-called Knowledge District, a few doors up from Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, is a reflection of its founder’s commitment to public health.

“I’m a physician and I want to make products that help human health everywhere,” said De Groot.

She says genetically derived therapeutics, constituting part of EpiVax’s work, are in their second generation.

“The original hope of the genetic-engineering revolution was that we would be able to create all of these human-gene-derived therapies that no one had any immune reaction to, and that turned out to be wrong,” said De Groot.

One of the central themes in De Groot’s work has been HIV research. She has a special relationship with …. FULL ARTICLE HERE