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Biotech, Univ of Miami Spin-Off Vaccine Company

Baby with microcephaly

Baby with microcephaly (Harold Ruiz, PAHO)

28 October 2016. Biotechnology company Heat Biologics Inc. is licensing research from University of Miami in Florida to develop vaccines against infectious diseases, starting with the Zika virus, in a new subsidiary. Financial aspects of the agreement between the Durham, North Carolina company and the university were not disclosed.

The new subsidiary, to be named Zolovax Inc., plans to develop vaccines protecting against infectious diseases that extend the company’s Immune Pan-Antigen Cytotoxic Therapy, or Impact, platform. That platform uses a line of engineered cells that express the heat-shock protein gp96, the basis Heat Biologics’ current work with cancer immunotherapies. Heat-shock protein gp96 acts as a natural early-warning and defense against premature cell death, that Heat Biologics formulates into adjuvants, or vaccine boosters, acting as chaperones presenting and binding antigens to activate T-cells in the immune system.

In the Heat Biologics platform, the engineered cell lines produce secretions of gp96, which enables the capturing of these proteins in purified form. Natasa Strbo, a research professor of microbiology and immunology at Miami’s medical school, studies heat-shock proteins, including gp96, and is a co-developer of the Heat Biologics technology. Her research includes studies of heat-shock protein gp96 applied to infectious diseases, including malaria and HIV.

The new agreement licenses Strbo’s recent work with simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV, the non-human primate analog to HIV. Her research shows a candidate vaccine based on heat-shock protein gp96 generates a strong immune response in mucous membranes, reducing the likelihood of virulent SIV infection in test animals by 73 percent.

Strbo and Heat Biologics believe the Impact platform can be extended to protect placentas of women at risk of exposure to the Zika virus, given the similarity of the placenta to mucous membranes. Zika is a cause of microcephaly, where babies are born with smaller heads and incomplete brain development, and can cause other severe fetal brain defects. Research suggests the Zika virus compromises the natural protective barrier of the placenta for the fetus, and a gp96 vaccine could generate a immune response in the placenta similar to that seen in the mucous membranes with the SIV vaccine.

“This led us to hypothesize,” says Strbo in a university and company statement, “that a gp96 vaccine might stimulate a similar virus-specific response in the placenta of Zika-infected women that could clear the virus and protect the fetus. We are currently pursuing this approach in our preclinical studies.”

Zolovax is expected to concentrate first on a Zika vaccine, but eventually expand to other infectious diseases, including HIV, West Nile, dengue, and yellow fever.

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