Vaccine research has helped her make a difference

By Marion Davis
Contributing Writer
SEARCHING FOR A CURE: Anne De Groot founded EpiVax in 1998 with her research partner Bill Martin. The company has developed vaccines for HIV, tuberculosis, smallpox and other diseases.

Dr. Anne S. De Groot went to medical school, she said, “to right the wrongs that had been wrought” in women’s health care. She planned to work in obstetrics and gynecology, but was angered by the attitudes of many men in her specialty. Then, in Africa, she found a new calling.

It was her last year at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, and she did a rotation in a mission hospital in Zaire. She traveled with missionaries and worked on a measles campaign, then spent time in South Africa, treating patients with township nurses.

She saw firsthand the toll of infectious diseases and was struck by how fighting them put doctors at the intersection between social injustice and personal choices. Vaccines, she realized, are “a scientific intervention that has a social impact” – a powerful way for her to make a difference in the world.

For most of the last 25 years, that has been De Groot’s focus. After completing her residency in internal medicine at Tufts New England Medical Center, she took a National Institutes of Health Fellowship in immunoinformatics and vaccine research, then returned to Tufts for specialized clinical training in infectious diseases.

She focused on two diseases in particular: tuberculosis, which had made a comeback in the United States in the late 1980s, afflicting many homeless people in the cities, and AIDS, for which there were few effective treatments at the time.

In 1992, armed with an NIH grant to help her launch her research career, she joined the Brown University medical faculty and opened the TB/HIV Research Laboratory. Within years, she had developed sophisticated software to map epitopes, the surfaces on molecules that can elicit an immune response – and are thus essential to vaccine

She called the technology EpiMatrix. In 1998, she and her research partner Bill Martin founded EpiVax Inc. and licensed the algorithms, using them in-house to develop vaccines for HIV, tuberculosis, smallpox and others, and making them available to industry clients.

It was cutting-edge work, drawing national and international attention – and major grants – to De Groot’s lab well before Rhode Island set out to become a biotechnology hub.

De Groot, Martin and their team took on a wide range of projects, mostly involving vaccines but also therapies that needed to be altered to avoid triggering an immune response. And they continued to upgrade and expand their technology, even breeding a new kind of lab mice that had been genetically altered to more closely mimic the human immune system.

But much as EpiVax is a business, De Groot has always wanted her work to benefit even those who could never afford to pay for medications. So in 2001, she co-founded the Global Alliance to Immunize Against AIDS (GAIA) Vaccine Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to develop a global HIV vaccine available to all who need it, and while the vaccine is under development, to lay the groundwork that will be needed to conduct clinical trials in sub-Saharan Africa.

De Groot also remained active in academia, continuing her research at Brown, teaching vaccinology to a new generation of scientists and mentoring young women.

Through that work, said Betsy Stubblefield Loucks, a former student and current EpiVax collaborations manager, “Dr. De Groot has helped launch countless young women into careers in public health, medicine, biotechnology, life science and social justice.”

De Groot hired her two weeks after she graduated from Brown, Loucks noted, and for two and a half years, she learned, grew and expanded her horizons by working on HIV/AIDS advocacy with De Groot. “She taught me to be fearless,” Loucks wrote in nominating De Groot for the 2009 Business Women Career Achievement award, “to question the status quo, and [to] never underestimate the power one individual has to change the world.”

De Groot has also treated patients for all these years, but not just anyone. Mentors in Chicago and at Tufts got her involved in treating TB, and in Rhode Island, she has worked with TB patients at the state clinic run by Roger Williams Medical Center and through The Miriam Hospital. And after working in the AIDS ward in the early 1990s at Boston’s Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, a public facility that treated the poor and uninsured, she treated HIV-infected women in prisons for more than 12 years.

“There are few more creative, energetic, brilliant forces in science than people like Annie,” raved Jeffrey R. Seemann, outgoing dean of the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences and co-chair of the R.I. Science and Technology Advisory
Council, who recently recruited De Groot to lead a new Institute for Immunology and Informatics at URI’s Providence Campus. Seemann plans to leave URI to become vice president of research at Texas A&M University on July 1.

Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, who has been working with De Groot – and Seemann – to develop a biotech research hub in the Jewelry District, called De Groot “an incredibly talented scientist and researcher” of national renown and “a leading entrepreneur in our
emerging biotech economy.”

Looking ahead, De Groot has many goals: a successful HIV vaccine, of course, and successful new drugs developed at EpiVax. But she also wants to work with other biotech companies to put EpiVax tools to work in advancing their own projects, and she wants to train a new generation of scientists to use these technologies in even more ways.

“What I’d like to do is to build a world-class institute for training young people … that the immunoinformatics community has built, to design better drugs and vaccines,” she said. EpiVax’s toolscan be used in far more ways than the company can manage on its own,
she added, “so we need to have more people working with the tools to do projects we won’t have time to do.” •