If “immunoinformatics” ever becomes a household word, the team at Providence’s EpiVax Inc., led by CEO Dr. Anne S. De Groot, will likely be a central reason why.
Immunoinformatics refers to the combination of conventional immunological work done in the lab, with “informatics,” the processing of huge troves of DNA and other protein-based data, to custom-design vaccines and therapeutic responses to disease.
Using proprietary software, EpiVax – which last month announced a research partnership with a German company, Biotest AG – battles a wide range of public-health problems. On the roster of diseases and conditions at the top of the company’s list in the past 12 months have been: the H7N9 flu strain in China, Pompe disease (a life-threatening buildup of glycogen in the muscles), hemophilia A, multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes and allergy.
Depending on the illness, and depending on whether it is being treated or prevented, EpiVax’s goal is either to trigger a specific response in the immune system or to prevent the immune system from getting involved in the first place.
For instance, for those with hemophilia A, a coagulant known as Factor VIII was first thought to be a yearned-for cure of the disease, and for some it was. A blood-clotting protein concentrated from donated blood plasma, Factor VIII gives hemophiliacs the ability to lead relatively normal lives, albeit burdened by injections, including, for certain patients (particularly children), IV ports. For some people being treated with the harvested Factor VIII, though, the therapy eventually produced an immune response that made the treatment stop working.
The promise of immunoinformatics is to step into a conundrum such as that presented by Factor VIII therapy rejection and make the treatment safe. That involves the introduction of Tregitopes, a sequence of amino acids that serves as an immune-system “off switch.” Biotest AG, which specializes in immunology and hematology, is partnering with EpiVax to pursue the creation of the safer Factor VIII product, in recognition of EpiVax’s cutting-edge work in the field.
Warren Alpert Medical School,