When you think of a business, a research lab might not immediately come to mind. For Denice Spero, running a lab to discover vaccines for diseases makes perfect business sense.
“Vaccines are incredible because they stop diseases before they occur and save millions of lives per year,” said the co-director for the University of Rhode Island’s Institute for Immunology and Informatics, or I’Cubed. “It was not too long ago that people were dying from small pox, polio or measles – in the U.S. today you never hear about these diseases. Now there is a vaccine to protect women from cervical cancer. It’s incredible.”
She started her career more than 20 years ago with Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc., a German pharmaceutical company with a research facility in Ridgefield, Conn. There she worked as a research chemist designing new drugs for asthma.
During her 18 years with Boehringer, she led teams developing new treatments for multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. This work eventually led to her interest in immunology. “I loved how you can synthesize molecules using the tools of organic chemistry, and then working in the drug-discovery industry, I learned how those tools are used to make medicines to help patients.”
She was promoted to vice president in drug discovery at Boehringer, where she focused on early safety testing, pharmaceuticals and drug studies in the fields of immunology, inflammation and cardiovascular diseases. She was one of only two women at the senior executive level among the 60 senior executives at that time.
She has served as a corporate consultant on the topics of inclusion and diversity and has participated in many panels on these topics.
In addition to her business and scientific accomplishments, Spero mentored hundreds of colleagues and scientists while at Boehringer, many of whom paid her a visit before she moved to Rhode Island. “It was a bit overwhelming but, it made me feel so proud that I had a positive impact on people, beyond the science.”
Today she holds the position of research professor at the University of Rhode Island, in addition to serving as the co-director for the institute, a place where the science of vaccines is getting a technological shot in the arm.
At I’Cubed she continues to work in immunology, but with the added tool of informatics her company can develop pharmaceuticals much faster than traditional methods.
The Providence-based institute is a grant-funded research program, founded and co-directed by Annie De Groot, that uses state-of-the-art, computer-software programs to manage massive amounts of biological data for the purpose of identifying optimal testing parameters. The program then uses the resulting data set to accelerate the discovery of vaccines. The team at I’Cubed is currently working on vaccines for liver and stomach cancer as well as Lyme disease. They are also developing a biodefense vaccine against very specific types of bacteria.
“At I’Cubed we are designing vaccines that harness the body’s immune system to fight disease,” she said.
Spero said that by using informatics tailored to the immune system, they can “put into the vaccine the essential elements that are needed to generate an immune response.”
She is also co-founder of Developing World Cures Inc., a program she began before coming to I’Cubed. The program has made the cause of neglected diseases a focus for research. It has already discovered and developed new therapies for tropical diseases such as the dengue virus.
Spero arranges for students from overseas to study at I’Cubed on developing these vaccines.
She was recently awarded, along with De Groot, a Providence-based grant to bring together scientists and entrepreneurs to teach them the principles of starting a biotechnology company.
Spero believes in passing along her knowledge and support to other professional women. She runs a course for scientists and entrepreneurs to teach them how to work together to start their own biotechnology businesses. She then helps these businesses get off the ground. Last year this program helped two new vaccine companies start up in Rhode Island.
What she likes best about being based in Providence is the sense of community.
“Since I have been in Providence, I have met so many wonderful people who are open and supportive,” she said. “That is what is so special about Providence. There is a will to help and to make the city a better place.”
Spero is a Portsmouth native and lives locally in a house of her own design. Her love of art, architecture and antiques married with her computer knowledge helped her produce architect-quality plans to build her own home.
She also earned her doctorate degree in organic chemistry from Brown University. Spero has numerous patents in the fields of immunology and drug discovery. Her ultimate goal is to have a drug on the market, something few scientists achieve in their career. •
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