JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii Biotech Inc.'s Dr. Beth-Ann Coller, left, and Dr. Carolyn Weeks-Levy work on developing a vaccine for dengue fever. Hawaii Biotech Inc. has been researching and developing the vaccine for about 12 years now.
Gates grant aids isle vaccine project
A biopharmaceutical company in Hawaii is tapping into Bill Gates' multibillion-dollar foundation to find a cure to dengue hemorrhagic fever, a disease that infects about 500,000 people worldwide each year.
Hawaii Biotech Inc. is one of about six companies researching promising vaccines to fight the severe form of dengue, which spreads through mosquitoes in tropical and subtropical climates, said Dr. Duane Gubler, director of the Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases.
In 2002, Gubler, then at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, launched the Pediatric Dengue Vaccine Initiative with a $55 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Since then the organization, based at the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul, has been helping companies create and introduce a dengue vaccine that would be affordable and accessible to poor children in endemic countries.
"There are five or six good candidate vaccines out there being developed," said Gubler, chairman of the board of counselors for the initiative. "Those brought it to the point worth pursuing and signing licensing agreements with major pharmaceutical manufacturers."
The effort shows how the charitable organization created by the software guru has become a key player in backing research to the immediate benefit of poorer countries, said Dr. Carolyn Weeks-Levy, chief scientific officer at Hawaii Biotech.
"It's a pivotal role, particularly for diseases like dengue that are mainly problems in endemic parts of the world where there's not so much money and maybe less commercial interest, but there are clear medical needs," she said, pointing out that it can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure vaccines are safe and effective.
Hawaii Biotech expects to begin clinical trials on its dengue vaccine by the end of 2007 after filing paperwork with the Food and Drug Administration, Weeks-Levy said. The Gates-funded program is building laboratories in Asia and Latin America to test the vaccines.
Meanwhile, some scientists in Hawaii hope the Gates Foundation will become an even greater supporter of similar, underfunded research programs as it doubles its endowment with a $31 billion pledge from investor Warren Buffett.
"They are going to have to move something in the order of $2.6 or $2.7 billion a year," said Tim Brown, a senior fellow at the East-West Center who specializes in HIV/AIDS research. "We haven't applied for anything yet, but I would say that probably in the next year or two, we'll probably put something in."
The Gates Foundation, which has given almost $500,000 to the Hawaii State Public Library System since 2001, declined to give details about how Buffett's contributions would be spent, saying only that it would increase the charity's funding power.
In 1999, Robert Retherford, coordinator of population and health studies at the East-West Center, compiled a report about the future of Asia's population through a $280,000 grant from the foundation.
"At that time they took a broader view. They were just getting in. They had a lot of money and had to give it out, and we got in there at the right time," Retherford said of the Gates Foundation. "Now they really took a more professional stance and decided to focus it on where they could make a difference rather than just spread it all over the place."
Researchers find the foundation attractive because it offers large grants that can sponsor programs for several years, Brown said. Government grants, he said, are often awarded on a year-to-year basis, making it harder to recruit staff for longer projects.
"That gives the institution the ability to spend their time focusing on the research or programs they are trying to implement rather than constantly being in the money game," said Brown.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
» Hawaii Biotech Inc. is working on developing a vaccine for dengue fever with the assistance of the Pediatric Dengue Vaccine Initiative. The Initiative was started with a $55 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A headline on a story on Page A6 Monday incorrectly implied that the local project received foundation money. Also, a photo caption with the story incorrectly stated that Hawaii Biotech had already developed a vaccine with a grant from the foundation.