Updated November 27 at 2:27pm

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life sciences

EpiVax, partners move ahead on H7N9 flu vaccine production


PROVIDENCE – New recipes for a vaccine to combat the H7N9 flu went into production this weekend, in a collaboration between EpiVax and Aldevron in Fargo, N.D., and a researcher at Fort Detrick, Md., the home of the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, according to Dr. Anne S. De Groot, chief science officer and CEO of EpiVax, a bioscience firm based in the Knowledge District.

“The goal is to produce enough vaccine to do a proof in principle study,” De Groot told the Providence Business News. “At Aldevron, they will be manufacturing a DNA vaccine that can be used to immunize mice that are subsequently challenged with the virus.”

At Fort Detrick, she continued, the work will be focused on developing a vaccine that can be employed by an FDA-approved delivery system currently used to deliver anti-bacterial products in food, such as the anti-listeria product used in cheese. “Our vaccines are platform independent,” she said.

The accelerated production schedule was prompted by news from China about the increasing spread of H7N9 infection: confirmed cases in the last two weeks have climbed from 3 to 60 with 13 deaths, with two cases of human-to-human transmission and with more than 1,000 people being “watched,” according De Groot, who has been monitoring reports from scientists and from the World Health Organization. One new case of H7N9 was reported in Beijing on April 12, indicating that the flu is spreading.

“More worrisome is the fact that these [cases] are far apart [geographically],” De Groot said. “Either human-to-human transmission is occurring, or there is an animal vector. The death rate is running about 30 percent.”

De Groot’s work has gained traction with one of the world’s leading flu researchers, Dr. Richard J. Webby, director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds. Webby is one of the research scientists who has received an isolated virus copy of the H7N9 flu to study and develop a vaccine response.

In a email sent on April 14 to De Groot, Webby asked her for suggestions on how to engineer changes that will increase T cell epitopes within the HA [hemagglutinin] protein, creating a hybrid approach to the manufacture of the vaccine.

“Just about to hop on plane for Europe,” Webby wrote. “Got any good ideas about HA changes we should engineer in that will increase T cell epitopes without altering [the] binding sites? We have HA and NA cloned and can easily put some in to see.”

De Groot said her team would be producing a three-dimensional model of the H7N9 flu protein, enabling Webby to introduce “much better epitopes” into the traditional vaccine design.

De Groot said Webby’s hybrid approach was “a brilliant idea,” because he would be manufacturing an improved vaccine using the HA approach and incorporating De Groot’s “better epitope” strategy. “More people will be comfortable with that approach,” she said.

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