By Richard Asinof
PROVIDENCE – It has been a very busy month and half for Dr. Anne S. De Groot and her team at EpiVax, a bioscience firm based in the Knowledge District, which celebrated its 15th birthday on May 17.
De Groot, the chief science officer and CEO of EpiVax, told Providence Business News that four new vaccines to combat the H7N9 flu using EpiVax’s recipes are now in development.
In addition, De Groot said she recently met in Japan with Masato Tashiro, head of flu at Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, who is responsible for developing Japan’s pandemic flu response.
“H7N9 is not very immunogenic, because the epitopes have a very weak signal,” Tashiro recently told New Scientist magazine. Tashiro said that because people differ genetically in the epitopes that their T-cells recognize, his lab has found that Asian people could be especially vulnerable.
De Groot and her team at EpiVax also published a research paper on the emerging threat from the H7N9 flu, in the journal Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics.
The article, “Low immunogenicity predicted for emerging avian-origin H7N9: Implication for influenza vaccine design,” detailed how De Groot and her team used well-established immunoinformatics tools to analyze the H7N9 protein sequences.
The research found that protein derived from closely related human-derived H7N9 strains contain fewer T cell epitopes than other recently circulating strains of influenza.
De Groot’s worry is that H7N9 flu may be a “stealth” virus, one that is able to fly under the immune system’s radar, because its surface protein hemagglutinin does not contain many of the short amino acid sequences, known as epitopes, that help trigger T-cells in the body to stimulate anti-body making cells.
For that reason, De Groot has been actively engaged in efforts to develop new vaccine recipes and new methods of production for those vaccines.
Dr. Michael Fine, director of the R.I. Department of Health, said he was worried about the timing when a vaccine to protect against H7N9 flu will be available. “It's not clear that we will have a vaccine [to protect] against H7N9 at the same time when we normally vaccinate for seasonal flu,” he recently told The Providence Business News. As a result, Fine said, “We’re running some scenarios to look at immunizing people two or three times against different strains of flu.”