AIDS vaccine test begins in SwedenThe first large-scale...

LIFE SCIENCES

February 09, 1993|By Liz Bowie

AIDS vaccine test begins in Sweden

The first large-scale test of an AIDS vaccine began late last week in Sweden on patients carrying the virus that causes the disease.

The experimental vaccine, made by a Connecticut biotechnology company, has been through initial testing in the United States, including tests on 100 volunteers at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

But the MicroGeneSys Inc. vaccine, called GP-160, also has been at the center of a controversy over which AIDS vaccines the federal government should test.

GP-160 probably will be the first vaccine to be tested by the U.S. -- at a cost to the government of $20 million. The vaccine was selected after an intensive lobbying effort by the company, which persuaded Congress to appropriate the money in the Department of Defense budget. The company had been rebuffed earlier by the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health.

The vaccine, a genetically engineered version of a piece of the outer shell of the AIDS virus, is designed to stave off the disease's progression. Initially, at least, it would not be used to protect the general public from the virus.

Several dozen AIDS vaccines have been developed by biotech companies and researchers. Some are in the initial stages of testing, but the final stage -- called Phase III trials -- often is too expensive for small biotech companies. So they depend on the government to do the testing.

The MicroGeneSys vaccine will be tested on 1,000 patients, first in Sweden and later in Denmark, Norway and Finland. In preliminary tests over the past five years, the vaccine has shown some ability to stimulate the immune system of patients.

Meanwhile, Viral Technologies, Inc. of Bethesda has been granted a European patent for its AIDS vaccine, which is a copy of part of the core of the virus.

Beltsville firm tests vaccine for strep

North American Vaccine Inc., a Beltsville biotech company, has begun testing a vaccine that would be administered to women of child bearing age to give them and their babies protection against a bacterial infection that affects 12,000 infants every year.

The vaccine for Group B streptococcus infection was developed using technology the company licensed from National Research Council in Canada, Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Harvard University. There is no other vaccine for Group B strep on the market.

The company said it will begin testing on several other vaccines this year.

Gaithersburg company looks into food testing

The deaths of two children and the severe food poisoning of 300 other people who ate contaminated meat at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants in the Pacific Northwest has spurred a Gaithersburg biotech company to step up its development of two products.

For the past three years, MicroCarb Inc. has been developing a quick test for a strain of E. coli that caused the food poisoning. The company says its test can quickly detect the bacteria's presence in raw meat or stool, but the test is about 12 to 18 months from the market.

A new, more accurate test is needed, says MicroCarb chief executive Vic Esposito, because doctors would treat a patient with the condition differently than patients with other types of E-coli infections. For instance, he says, giving such a patient antibiotics would increase the release of a toxin produced by the bacteria.

The company also hopes to develop a drug for the illness, using antibodies. But that project is less advanced.

"We had been a believer that it was a serious problem," Mr. Esposito said. The company was working on developing a test, but the incidence of poisoning had been so small that Mr. Esposito said he had not made it a priority.

"We don't necessarily think it is going to be a large market," he said. "[But] we are looking at accelerating the development of the test."

Researchers granted salmonella patent

Speaking of nasty bacterial illnesses . . .

Out of the University of Maryland at College Park and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has come a new testing procedure for salmonella. Researchers have received patents for a new sampling method and a better way to grow the bacteria in the laboratory.

The two have licensed the new test to three companies, including Environmental Systems Service, Ltd. of College Park, which provided the system to poultry and livestock producers.

President Clinton may boost biotech

Biotech should get a boost from the Clinton administration, says G. Steven Burrill, author of Ernst & Young's annual state-of-biotechnology report.

On the plus side, he predicts more research funding.

Tax-credit reforms and incentives for capital formation are areas "where their rhetoric is pretty good, although Democrats have historically viewed capital gains as something for the rich," Mr. Burrill added.

On the minus side is the move to cut health care costs and "more regulatory turmoil" at the Food and Drug Administration, should top officials be replaced.

"But I do think they have an interest in seeing the regulators become less of a burden and more user-friendly," he said.

He added, "I think the biotech industry wants regulation, but wants it to be stable over time. The problems have been with either inadequate or inconsistent regulations."

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