Have you heard of Dengue fever, malaria, Chagas disease, and leishmaniasis? Probably not, since they don’t get much attention in the U.S. But these life-threatening diseases infect more than a billion people around the world. And they’re preventable. Thankfully, at URI’s Institute for Immunology and Informatics – better known as iCubed – they’re not only getting attention, they are the top priority. More than 20 scientists and students are tackling the challenging work of designing vaccines for neglected diseases, using the highest of high-tech equipment and techniques.
Based at our Providence Biotechnology Center, iCubed is led by Research Professors Annie De Groot and Denice Spero. De Groot is a physician and entrepreneur who built a reputation for tuberculosis and HIV research, from which she spun off her vaccine design technology into the start-up company EpiVax. She also collaborated with local organizations to operate an HIV clinic in the African country of Mali and founded a free clinic for low-income residents of Providence. Spero is an experienced drug developer who led pharmaceutical industry efforts to develop new drugs for autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Their aim, and the aim of the students who work with them, is to make better, safer vaccines more quickly than traditional methods. Their work on dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease, got a big boost last year when Alan Rothman joined the lab and brought his multi-million dollar research grants with him. He has studied the disease for 25 years and believes his affiliation with iCubed will speed his efforts to ease those suffering from the debilitating disease.
For De Groot and Spero, another very important aspect of their lab is the training of the next generation of researchers. That next generation includes numerous URI students, who have unique opportunities to contribute to the development of vaccines early in their college career.
“Developing vaccines is a long, continuous process, and you need to train new people to continue the work,” Spero said. “When Annie and I aren’t doing this work any more, today’s students will be the next generation of scientists making further innovations and new discoveries. The science works best when you work as a team.” The iCubed team also includes young vaccine researchers from around the globe, who are invited to the lab every year for a three-week intensive training session on the use of vaccine development tools, which accelerate the development of treatments and cures for diseases of the immune system.
Bottom line is – if you’re someone who cares about people around the world, who wants to give them access to vaccinations that can improve their health, iCubed – and URI – may be the place for you. “Some people make great food, some write great books,” De Groot said. “We want to make great vaccines and improve human health everywhere in the world.”