Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.Threats of bioterrorist attacks and the outbreak of the respiratory disease SARS have all contributed to rising interest in leading edge vaccine research.

On May 8, journalists get an opportunity to explore the “The Science of Vaccines,” in a day-long presentation by the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research (NCABR) at the Biotechnology Research Center.

Karen Hoffman, NCABR president says the event gives reporters “the opportunity to ask people such as the head of Duke University’s vaccine center, who has a unique perspective that’s quite unique, about SARS.” Hoffman says the seminar “brings together remarkable expertise found right here in North Carolina.”

Among the speakers is Peter Young, CEO of Triangle-based Alphavax, which has drawn about $40 million in combined grant and venture backing for its innovative approach to making safer, more effective vaccines. Alpahvax is only one of several RTP-based companies focused on vaccine research. Merix, which landed $40 million in one of last-year’s standout venture rounds, is working on a vaccine technology it hopes may be effective against a broad range of cancers.

Safer, better, more expensive vaccines

Alphavax, which has received considerable support for its advanced vaccine research from the U.S. Army, is just about ready to start Phase I clinical trials of its HIV vaccine.

“This is a medical arena poised to explode,” Young tells Local Tech Wire. “But there are social and policy issues associated with vaccines, and that’s some of what I’ll discuss at the meeting. Society assigns a risk-benefit analysis to vaccines versus drugs.”

Young says while on the one hand, vaccines can keep you from getting ill in the first place, on the other, there are safety issues with vaccines that use killed or weakened viruses. They have a low level of serious side effects. Some people who aren’t sick, get sick from those vaccines.

“New technologies such as the one we’re working on should address that to deliver both better safety and better efficacy,” he says.

They won’t be as cheap as current vaccines, though.

“Most of the vaccines out there have been around so long, they’re taken for granted,” Young says. “Polio vaccine costs pennies. Compared to drugs, a $350 billion a year industry, the vaccine business is tiny, only $6 million to $10 million a year.

“But the new vaccines will cost more than pennies a dose, and they should. My model is bread. You don’t ask yourself how much a manufacturer is making on a loaf of bread.”

He says people will have to think of the vaccines in terms of research costs now, not 25 years ago. But, if the vaccines keep you from getting potentially deadly diseases with a minimum of worry about side effects, they’ll be worth it, Young says.

The market for newer vaccines could expand to $100 million a year if the technologies work as hoped, he says.

Alphavax creates its vaccines by using a modified horse virus to deliver a gene the researchers believe will interact well with the immune system to provoke a strong response and injects that rather than weak or dead viruses. So far, Young says, in animal studies the experimental method has not caused any serious side effects.

The company, founded in 1997, licenses its technology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It did its first corporate deal with giant drug-maker Wyeth in 1998 and still works with the company. It is preparing an HIV vaccine it hopes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will approve for clinical trials soon. Alphavax has other projects working on vaccines for infectious diseases for the Army. It will also test the technique to create a vaccine for prostrate cancer.

If successful, the technique could be used on a variety of diseases. Young notes that other companies are already doing clinical trials on vaccines using similar techniques.

The May 8 seminar on vaccine science will include: fundamental concepts in vaccine research; infectious disease transmission and preventive strategies; the role of vaccines in national defense; and the market and social forces influencing vaccine development; and public impact of media coverage of vaccine research.

Other Speakers include:

  • Myron S. Cohen, M.D., director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill division of infectious disease.
  • Barton F. Haynes, M.D., director of the Duke University Human Vaccine Institute.
  • Samuel Katz, M.D., Duke professor who helped develop the measles vaccine in use today among other vaccine discoveries, and recently received the Sabin Gold Medal award for his leadership in the field of vaccinology.
  • Jim Kirkpatrick, M.D., bioterrorism coordinator and chief of the office of public health preparedness and response in NC.
  • David Ropeik, director of communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

For more information on the Science of Vaccines seminar for journalists: www.ncabr.org

Alphavax: www.alphavax.com