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Arbovax Aims to Remove the Sting from Mosquito-Borne Diseases

By Jim Shamp
News and Publications Editor

You can't take the bite out of the mosquito, but a small Raleigh biotechnology company could become very big by taking the might out of that sometimes deadly bite.

The company, Arbovax, was started by British-born entrepreneur Malcolm Thomas with a Business Development Loan for slightly more than $16,000 from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in 2006. 

Thomas, president and CEO of the firm, is building the company on a novel technology developed at North Carolina State University (NCSU) for preventing insect-borne viruses, for example the dengue fever virus carried by mosquitoes.

The approach was the brainchild of researchers Dennis Brown and Raquel Hernandez, both of whom now serve as scientific advisers to Arbovax.

A Worldwide Killer

The timing is right for Arbovax. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported increasing incidence of dengue (pronounced DENG-ee) fever worldwide – and so far there's no vaccine to prevent it.

In recent years dengue has been causing problems for travelers to areas where the disease is prevalent and for residents of Puerto Rico and Americans along the Mexican border. And Arbovax targets dengue fever with a unique approach to vaccine development.

Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral disease found in most tropical and subtropical regions of the world. The virus occurs in four versions, called serotypes. Infection from any of them provides immunity only to that serotype, according to the CDC. Thus one person can get sick from dengue fever multiple times, and developing a vaccine is more complicated.

And a second infection with a different serotype increases a person's risk for the most dangerous form of the disease, dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF), which produces bleeding and the possibility of life-threatening shock.

In 2005, CDC reported a dengue outbreak in the Brownsville, Tex., area that hospitalized 25 people, 16 of them with DHF. Last year 21 people were reportedly killed by dengue fever in Puerto Rico, of more than 10,000 infected. That compares to only about 3,000 infected there in 2006. And more than 30,000 cases were reported in Mexico last year.

"West Nile is a disease caused by an insect-borne virus too," Thomas said. "It's more well-known to North Carolinians. But I think people here are starting to wake up to dengue fever.

"I'll bet hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina travel to Mexico, South America, etc. Some 50 million people a year travel from the U.S. to these endemic areas. So there's good chance people could come back with something unexpected."

Raising Visibility

Thomas said Arbovax's platform can target a whole group of diseases that require insect bites for transmission to mammals. Besides dengue fever, they may include Japanese encephalitis, West Nile and yellow fever.

Last month the company moved into 4,800 square feet of shared Level II labs and offices with another research-based firm, LaamScience, on Hutton Street near the NC State campus.

Next month Thomas plans to close on the second half of a $1.5 million round of venture capital funding. And he hopes to attract further interest from more outside funding sources such as SBIR loans, foundations, the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense (DOD) awards.

"We haven't yet hit the national radar," he said, "probably because we're quite new and haven't yet had a chance to get our name out there. We were almost a virtual company until November, when we moved into this lab space. But now it's time to raise our visibility. And certainly dengue has been on the DOD radar screen for quite a while."

A Different Approach

The typical anti-viral approach is to use protein fragments, splicing pieces of virus onto something that is not pathogenic, hoping it will produce an immune response when presented to the test subject.

Arbovax’s approach is different. "We take the whole virus and make multiple deletions in the transmembrane domain to limit its ability to enter and grow in a mammalian cell," Thomas explained. "So every part of the virus is now being presented to the immune system, not just a small protein fragment. So it's indistinguishable from the wild-type virus, which gives a much better immune response."

What's important, he added, is that none of the deletions has shown any reversion to the wild type when Arbovax scientists return them to insects or insect cells. So even though viruses are known for their ability to mutate, the Arbovax approach appears to offer a safe and effective way to render these kinds of viruses harmless to humans and animals who become vaccinated.

"The power of our technology," smiled Thomas, "is that it's a platform that can potentially address about 200 mosquito-borne viruses that produce disease in humans."