Updated March 27 at 8:27pm

Five Questions With: Denice Spero

Co-director of iCubed talks about the URI-hosted institute’s rapid growth and its recent conference.

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life sciences

Five Questions With: Denice Spero


Last week, the Institute for Immunology and Immunization, known as iCubed, hosted the six annual Vaccine Renaissance Conference from Oct. 15-17 at The Providence Hotel, attracting top researchers from across the nation.

The topics included “Developments in Homeland Security: From Microbe Hunters to Vaccines on Demand” and “Neglected Tropical Diseases.”

Through the work of iCubed, Rhode Island has the potential to become a major center for vaccine discovery, development and manufacturing.

Providence Business News asked Denice Spero, co-director of iCubed, to talk about the institute’s rapid growth and potential as an economic engine.

PBN: What factors have enabled iCubed to grow from 4 employees in 2009 to 20 employees today?

SPERO: At iCubed, we have an entrepreneurial model; we are primarily funded by grants and overhead return. As we win additional grants, we can fund additional research and hire more staff. We have been quite successful winning grants and that has allowed us to expand.

In addition, the University of Rhode Island provides laboratory space and infrastructure in Providence so that we have a place to conduct our research and carry out our training programs.

Since 2009, we have brought on board new faculty at the professor and the assistant professor levels, post-doctoral fellows, research lab associates, visiting scientists and key administrative staff.

For the future we will look toward diversifying our funding sources and will seek funding from foundations, individuals and through partnerships.

PBN: At the annual Vaccine Renaissance Conference, you will be teaching researchers how to use your informatics tools to design vaccines for biodefense applications and emerging infectious diseases. What are those emerging infectious diseases and potential biodefense applications?

SPERO: At our annual Vaccine Renaissance Conference this week, Joel McCleary, a former consultant to the Department of Defense, gave a talk on the history of biological weapons.

McCleary showed a need to be prepared for an attack, and he described the lethality of these weapons and the ease with which they can be prepared.

At the iCubed we are currently designing vaccines using our “gene to vaccine approach” for bacterial pathogens such as, f. tularensis and burkholderia mallei/pseudomallei.

These pathogens are highly lethal and a considered significant threats for use in bioweapons.

If there is to be a bioterror attack using these pathogens, typical treatments used in natural infection situations, namely antibiotics, would not work because the dose of the pathogen would be so high, and the pathogenic response so fast, that there would be no time to wait for an antibiotic to take effect.

A vaccine however would prevent infection for those not at the epicenter of the attack. ICubed has also awarded pilot grants for researchers to use our informatics tools to design vaccines for encephalitic alpha viruses, which are also biothreat agents, such as Western, Eastern and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. This work, led by Tim Messitt, is showing promising results.

To further this research, we will need to identify additional funding. Regarding infectious diseases, we are working on understanding the pathogenesis of Dengue virus in the lab of Dr. Alan Rothman as well as seeking epitope-driven vaccines for Hepatitis C virus, Lyme disease and tuberculosis.

PBN: How do you see iCubed’s role within Rhode Island’s emerging knowledge economy and Providence's Knowledge District?

SPERO: First of all, we are generating knowledge on new ways to make faster and potentially safer vaccines. We think that Rhode Island has an opportunity to be a major center for vaccine discovery, development and manufacturing.

We are training students to use advanced immunology techniques and informatics tools so that they have the skills to obtain jobs in this field.

We have taken Ed Bozzi’s student interns from the URI biotechnology program into our labs for advanced immunology training. They have done such a fantastic job that we have hired them to work with us in the summer and part-time during their school term.

In addition, we are hiring staff, who make the institute run, such as personnel with expertise in finance and grants administration. We are hiring Rhode Islanders.

Currently our labs our located at the URI Providence campus but eventually we would like to be in a state-of-the-art building in the knowledge district.

Annie De Groot and I both support URI President David Dooley’s vision to build a nursing center using a public private partnership model. Being in state-of-the-art space (which is a great recruiting tool by the way) and close to the hospitals would be optimal for us.

PBN: Moving forward, what kinds of collaborative efforts, if any, do you envision with the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM) at Brown University?

SPERO: Over the past four years we have worked diligently to establish a number of collaborations in state, out of state and abroad. Within Brown and Lifespan we have collaborations with Drs. Stephen Gregory, Steve Moss, and Phyllis Losikoff and are writing grants with Drs. Jake Kurtis and Ian Michelow.

On the computational side we have collaborated with Dr. Chris Bailey-Kellogg at Dartmouth College and are in discussions about computational projects with Joan Peckham at URI.

ICERM and iCubed have not yet initiated discussion but we are certainly open to potential collaboration.

PBN: Do you anticipate that iCubed will serve as an “incubator” for new business startups here in Rhode Island?

SPERO: I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years, so I am product focused. I would love to get a drug, vaccine or therapeutic into the clinic and then onto the market.

That is the dream of every scientist who has worked in the industry. ICubed is an academic institute with a mission to translate our discoveries into vaccines that will ultimately help patients.

We are working on a vaccine for Hepatitis C virus, for instance, in collaboration with EpiVax, Inc., that has commercial potential.

We are also designing informatics tools to make new vaccines for fish in aquaculture. We can envision spinning off both intellectual property and companies from the iCubed.

I personally like growing organizations, and starting new, for-profit businesses is good for Rhode Island.


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