New Company To Turn UNC-CH, Army Inventions Into Improved Vaccines

January 22, 1998

By ELIZABETH ZUBRITSKY
UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Inventions by microbiologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases have led to creation of AlphaVax, a new company in Durham.

UNC-CH has licensed exclusively to AlphaVax four patents and two applications for patents expected to be issued. The company will develop and market the technology, which has broad applications for vaccines and gene therapy, company officials say. Initial targets include infectious diseases such as HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- herpes simplex virus and human papilloma virus.

Dr. Robert E. Johnston, UNC-CH professor of microbiology and immunology and one of the company's founding scientists, said the technology has obvious advantages over other vaccine methods. The new technique is efficient -- delivering large amounts of immunity-provoking substances directly to critical tissues -- and can be used multiple times in the same patient, Johnston said.

The approach grew out of research on the life cycle of the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus done by Johnston, his UNC-CH colleague Dr. Nancy Davis and the Army institute?s Dr. Jonathan Smith. All AlphaVax scientific founders, the researchers created disarmed versions of the virus, which stimulated the immune system but did not cause disease. They also turned the attenuated virus into a vector -- a delivery vehicle that can be used for many kinds of vaccines. Unlike most vectors, however, this one can be used in the same patient several times.

"Many vectors don't work well if reused because the immune system reacts to them," said Davis, research associate professor of microbiology and immunology. "So far, in our studies in rodents, we haven't run into that problem. We're able to use our vectors for multiple vaccines or booster shots without a reduction in efficacy."

"This is first-rate science that has led to a breakthrough technology," said Dr. Francis J. Meyer, associate vice provost and director of UNC-CH's Office of Technology Development, which negotiated the license agreement with AlphaVax. "The potential to benefit the public makes this one of the most promising start-up companies the university has helped to form."

"As an alumna of the university and having recently returned to the state, it is very exciting to start a company with such promising technology,? said Sherry Reynolds, president of AlphaVax.

For Johnston and colleagues, launching the company means reaching a goal they have been working toward for more than 10 years -- clinical testing, initially for vaccine applications, he said.

"Getting ready for clinical trials is a tremendously expensive process that isn't always practical in a university setting," Johnston said. "Now we will be able to see our experiments through, from the earliest laboratory studies to the final tests of safety and efficacy in humans. And that is very exciting."
-end-
Note: Sherry Reynolds can be reached at (919)477-8807.

Contacts: David Williamson, News Services, (919) 962-2091. Neil Caudle, Office of Information and Communications, 962-7765.



University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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