EpiVax leads NIH’s $5.8M bird-flu vaccine project

Updated at 10:21 a.m.

EPIVAX PRESIDENT AND CEO Dr. Anne S. De Groot. EpiVax has joined an National Institutes of Health partnership to research a vaccine for the influenza A (H7N9) virus. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
EPIVAX PRESIDENT AND CEO Dr. Anne S. De Groot. EpiVax has joined an National Institutes of Health partnership to research a vaccine for the influenza A (H7N9) virus. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – Immunolgy engineering biotech firm EpiVax Inc. is leading a National Institutes of Health-funded $5.8 million collaboration developing a protective vaccine against avian influenza A(H7N9), identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as posing the greatest pandemic risk according to the CDC’s Influenza Risk Assessment Tool.

In people, H7N9 can cause a severe form of pneumonia and progress into septic shock and multiorgan failure. The CDC reports it was first reported in China in March 2013.

China is currently experiencing its 5th epidemic of Asian H7N9 human infections. This is the largest annual epidemic to date. As of September 5, 2017, the World Health Organization has reported 760 human infections with Asian H7N9 virus during the 5th epidemic, making the largest epidemic to date.

The CDC reports there have been 1,557 cases of H7N9 reported worldwide, all caught in China, Hong Kong or Macao. Nearly 40 percent of those infections were fatal.

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Fortunately, the virus is not easily transmitted between people; most cases are from people handling poultry, the CDC reports.

The virus is distantly related to seasonal influenza and presents a challenge for traditional flu vaccine approaches, which rely on prior exposure to be effective. Using state-of-the-art bioinformatics and structure modeling methods, the program aims to engineer the H7N9 hemagglutinin protein to resemble seasonal flu; a process designed to engage immunological memory and make conventional hemagglutinin-focused flu vaccines protective against the new high-mortality risk avian influenza.

EpiVax’s team, EpiVax President and CEO, Dr. Anne S. De Groot, William Martin, and Dr. Lenny Moise, is partnering on the project with Dr. Celia Schiffer at UMass Medical School,  Dr. Indresh Srivastava at Protein Sciences, and Dr. Ted Ross at The University of Georgia.

The funds will support research at EpiVax including personnel and resources for conducting the research, Moise said.

EpiVax will receive 40 percent of the grant, about $2.3 million, for their part in the project.  Nearby in Connecticutt, Protein Sciences will receive 20 percent, about $1.1 million, for production of candidate vaccines.

Moise said standard precautions taken for handling human clinical samples at Biosafety Level 2 will be taken in work conducted at EpiVax. The samples will be cells collected from people who receive this year’s seasonal flu vaccine.

“None of the work at EpiVax will use the H7N9 virus. Our collaborator Ted Ross at University of Georgia will perform infections with the H7N9 virus in mice in a fully compliant Level 3 facility,” Moise said.

EpiVax’s first-generation engineered H7N9 product is currently under clinical trial in Adelaide, Australia, managed by a team at Flinders University and Vaxine.

We are proud to be the first in the world to test in humans EpiVax’s innovative approach to modifying flu proteins to make them more immunogenic,” said Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, Vaxine’s research director

The 5-year program will address pandemic preparedness, a pillar of the U.S. Government’s National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.

“The EpiVax team has had a great deal of success developing vaccines to help people all over the world lead healthier lives,” said U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.  “Congratulations to EpiVax on attracting this federal funding, which is another notable achievement for Rhode Island’s growing biotech industry.”

Rob Borkowski is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Borkowski@pbn.com.

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