Using math to design vaccines of the future

By Richard Asinof
Contributing Writer
EpiVax Inc., a biotech firm in Providence’s Knowledge District, is an innovator in the field of computational immunology, which involves feeding data into computers that apply mathematical approaches to ultimately develop vaccines and defeat disease. More

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Using math to design vaccines of the future

PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD
A NEW VISION: EpiVax has pioneered the use of immune-informatics in the field of vaccine development. Here, research associate Ryan Tassone checks the efficacy of a vaccine on a group of cell cultures at the company’s Knowledge District lab.
By Richard Asinof
Contributing Writer
Posted 9/16/13

EpiVax Inc., a biotech firm in Providence’s Knowledge District, is an innovator in the field of computational immunology, which involves feeding data into computers that apply mathematical approaches to ultimately develop vaccines and defeat disease.

The company uses the pioneering concept of immuno-informatics to develop vaccines and therapeutics that will afford better protection against illness with fewer side effects.

Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases represent a significant challenge for next-generation vaccine design. Design of future vaccines has the potential of improving human health but also has a role in protecting people against new and dangerous forms of bioterrorism.

Dr. Anne S. DeGroot, CEO of the 15-year-old firm, said EpiVax has developed an innovative product known as iVAX, a Web-based tool for designing vaccines. “We have composed a suite of immuno-informatics tools for accelerated design of … vaccines generated from protein sequences,” she said.

Beyond the day-to-day work, members of the EpiVax team desire to be part of a larger effort that contributes to improving human health by moving science forward.

When asked how EpiVax has been able to maintain its flexibility in a rapidly changing market and scientific world, DeGroot said the key was keeping channels of communication open, including social media.

“We keep an ear to the ground and an eye on biotech information channels,” DeGroot said. “Face-to-face meetings are important for gathering information and anticipating changes in scientific directions. I am always out and about, meeting with companies and getting feedback on their needs with regards to the immunogenicity problems they are facing, even if it requires traveling frequently to Europe and Asia.”

This fall, DeGroot and members of her team will be traveling to Japan, Brazil and Switzerland.

DeGroot said she also relies on her team of scientific directors, who speak frequently at local and national biotechnology conferences. “And of course we keep an active presence on social media,” she continued. “Keeping all of these channels of communication open allows us to keep up with the latest trends. We like to think that we are setting trends, too.”

Another important key to success has been EpiVax’s commitment to nurture young talent, according to DeGroot.

“I remember being a post-doctoral researcher and thinking that the guys in charge were a bunch of dusty, old [codgers],” she said. “I keep that idea in the forefront of my mind when hiring. I am always looking for people who are willing to stand up for their ideas, no matter how new they are, because new ideas can be life-changing.”

“The mantra at EpiVax is fearless science,” DeGroot continued. “By that we mean that we are open to new ideas, even if they are decades ahead of their time.” •

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