The science of today is the technology of tomorrow. This is true of the work done by Annie de Groot, a vaccinologist and entrepreneur. She is the CEO/CSO of EpiVax, Inc, a vaccine design company she co-founded in 1998. At URI she is a research professor and director of the Institute for Immunology and Informatics (iCubed), which she founded in 2008 as part of the university’s emerging biotechnology program. Throughout her career she’s been recognized on the national, international and local level including just this past September, when she was named one of the Top 50 Most Influential People in the vaccine industry by VaccineNation.
But what inspires a person to work in the field of vaccinology? For Annie, it was when she witnessed what was available to those who could pay for health care and those who could not – the consequences were often lethal. “Once the disparities became clear to me, there was no turning back,” she says.
“As a medical student, I rotated through hospitals in Zaire, South Africa and Peru. Those experiences are indelibly etched into my memory. In those far-flung places, I was witness to deaths from vaccine-preventable disease. Who was dying? Children. Their mothers mourned them. But to the outside world, they were just a number, a statistic, another death from measles that did not need to occur.”
It is from those experiences, that she learned that vaccines were life-saving and that access to health care is a human right. She firmly believes that right should not be limited by geography or circumstances of birth. “I am driven to improve access to health care and to vaccines everywhere in the world,” emotes Annie.
With the addition of iCubed to URI in 2008, URI has become a leader in the field of vaccine discovery. The focus of iCubed is on applying cutting-edge bioinformatic tools to accelerate the development of treatments and cures for a number of diseases. “Because I know that access to vaccines can be lifesaving, I find the work that we do at EpiVax and iCubed to be passionately interesting,” she says. “When I worked with the measles vaccination campaign in Zaire and in South Africa, I learned about the power of vaccination against disease. Now I have the opportunity (with my colleagues at EpiVax) to research and develop an AIDS vaccine and vaccines against Hepatitis C, influenza, TB and, yes, Ebola too.”
She believes that a vaccine is truly the only hope to stop Ebola in West Africa. For Annie, “when addressing health inequality, rather than focusing on the reason why the inequity exists, I do not ask why it came to be – but why not make it change.” In true form, Annie’s company EpiVax has already analyzed the Ebola vaccine. The results of that analysis are available to the research world on the EpiVax website.