A NEW WAY FORWARD: From left, VIC staff members Idaresit Udo, MD, outreach committee leader; Pierre LeBlanc, PhD, project manager; Christopher Hope, director of Public Relations; Jean Nézivar, research technician; Dan Richer, research student; Shaw Warren, MD, VaxCelerate and VIC advisor; Jianping Yuan, PhD, research fellow; Poznansky; and Amy Yang, PhD, visiting scientist
Mark Poznansky MD, PHD, turns on the computer in his office within the MGH Vaccine Immunotherapy Center (VIC) at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Within moments, his team is connected via international teleconferencing to four other academic and biotech company laboratories across the globe, including scientists in Germany and Denmark, a biochemist in Seattle and an immunologist in Rhode Island. Together, they plan to change the future of vaccine research.
Poznansky, VIC’s founder and director, says the newly formed consortium, called VaxCelerate, is one of a few recently approved Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency projects in the United States. The group’s goal is to bring industry and academic leaders together to accelerate vaccine and immunotherapy development. While initial work will focus on HIV-1, the consortium could apply its intellectual and technical advantage to address many other pathogens.
“It’s the way of the future,” Poznansky says. “This is a fascinating opportunity to bring talented scientists and product developers together as part of the new wave of research where work that ranges from the genome of the pathogen to definitive preclinical testing is being done by combining the expertise of all involved. We each bring our own specialty to the group, but we are integrated right from the beginning. This differs from traditional research where groups worked independently and then, if they did share information, there could be time-consuming disconnects, and it could become complicated and costly for them to move forward together. I consider our consortium to be nimble and capable of applying itself to a variety of different pathogens at short notice."
The program is fast-moving, Poznansky says, with aggressive timelines to bring its goals to fruition. A prime example of what the group hopes to address would be a situation such as the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. “We want to be able to respond more quickly to emerging infectious diseases like H1N1, where we saw it take almost two years to create a useful vaccine. Under this type of partnership, it would take months rather than years.”
With advice from senior experts, Poznansky hand-picked the consortium members and credits them as some of the best in their respective fields: Evaxion Biotech, which works to identify and develop novel B-cell antigen vaccine candidates based on pathogen genomes using in silico technology; biochemist David Baker, PhD, and his team within The Baker Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle that designs synthetic proteins that can serve as vaccines; Rhode Island-based immunology company EpiVax, Inc., led by Annie De Groot, MD, that uses high-throughput informatics to predict vaccine components directly from genomic sequences and provides definitive testing of new vaccines in human-like animal models; and ProBioGen, a German-based company specializing in artificial human lymph nodes which allow testing of new vaccines before introduction into patients.
Another pivotal person in the consortium’s successful formation is Frances Toneguzzo, PhD, executive director of Partners HealthCare Research Ventures and Licensing, and her colleague Rekha Paleyanda, PhD, who worked with all parties to create all essential consortium agreements. The project has been guided since its formation by Jeff Gelfand, MD, Shaw Warren, MD, and Tim Brauns, MBA, senior scientific and strategic advisors to VIC, and by Mary Field – advisor to Good Laboratory Practice that allows products generated in academia to be more effectively taken up into development by industry.
“We are just in the beginning stages now that the program has been approved,” Poznansky says. “We hope it will represent a new way forward for making better vaccines, faster. It’s exciting to have such a great collaboration.” For more information on VIC’s projects, visit www.advancingcures.org.
Read more articles from the 4/20/12 Hotline issue.