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Fall Reception 2005

With Una Ryan Una Ryan

Our annual Fall Reception was held on Thursday, 13 October 2005, in the Oak Room at the Union Club in Boston starting at 6:30pm.

Cambridge Alumna Una Ryan, Ph.D., O.B.E. Chair of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and President and CEO of AVANT Immunotherapeutics addressed over fifty members of the Society on the timely topic of vaccines. The Fall reception was held at the Boston Union Club in the fifth floor Oak Room overlooking the Boston Common and Public Gardens. She described her inspiration for founding AVANT and the strategy she has employed to grow the corporation, which  over the past five years has seen revenues increase 800%, winning nomination to Deloitte & Touche's New England Technology Fast 50.

As a young girl growing up in England she was inspired by her grandfather, a colonel in the British Army who had carried small pox vaccine into the far reaches of the Himalayas, and by a network of strong-minded single women. On a rare occasion attending the cinema she glimpsed the plight of small children in third world countries ravaged by infectious diseases and vowed to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather. After a doctorate in Cell Biology from Cambridge University in 1968, academic research and experience in the pharmaceutical field she has done so at AVANT which was established in 1998.

The central challenge she confronted at AVANT was how to develop and deliver vaccines for infectious diseases to third world countries yet return significant value to investors. The overwhelming success of the first generation of vaccines in the Western world has reduced awareness of the continuing need for such vaccines in the third world where sterile needles, the required refrigeration, and the use of adjuvants impeded distribution; moreover, the vaccines themselves could only be "sold for pennies." At AVANT Dr. Ryan pioneered an innovative approach using cholera bacteria modified to remove the genes producing toxins but to retain the immunogenic response. Such genetically re-engineered cholera bacteria can be grown in cell culture in large scale quantities rather than the more traditional and limited approach using chicken eggs. The resulting bacterial cells themselves constitute a single-dose vaccine and can be stored without refrigeration, delivered orally in a sweet solution appreciated by children, and do not require an adjuvant. In July 2005 AVANT published the results of the Phase II trials of its single-dose oral cholera vaccine, CholeraGarde®.

AVANT's patented approach forms the basis of a technology pl  atform for vaccine development. To guard against the threats of bioterroism, the United States Department of Defense has asked AVANT has developed a bivalent vaccine to protect against anthrax and plague. By further modifying the tame cholera genome, AVANT enabled the bacillus to express surface anthrax and plague immunogen markers for a novel biodefense vaccine. Dr. Ryan was particularly proud of AVANT's role in developing a vaccine (Rotarix®) against Rotavirus, the most common cause of severe diarrhea and dehydration in infants and young children, especially in developing countries. More than 125 million cases of diarrhea each year are attributed to rotavirus, which causes an estimated 25% of all deaths due to diarrheal disease and 6% of all deaths in children under the age of five.

From a business perspective the path to profitability is made particularly hazardous by the long development and costly approval process for new drugs. With the cost of bringing new drugs to market averaging $800 million primarily due to expensive Phase III clinical trials, AVANT partnered with GlaxoSmithKline for commercializing Rotarix and will seek a similar partnership arrangement for its cholesterol management vaccine, CETi, aimed at the cardiovascular disease market. For this exciting new venture AVANT employs its platform technology to induce antibodies against the enzyme that converts "good" high density lipoproteins into "bad" low density lipoproteins.

The evening concluded with a lively discussion which ranged from AVANT's partnership with the International Vaccine Institute funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the prospect for an avian flu pandemic. The outbreak of such a pandemic is just a matter of time according to Dr. Ryan, anticipating the recent strong federal response of a $7.1 b
  illion prevention plan and the $1 billion World Health Organization global plan to halt the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus saving a potential $500 billion economic loss and millions of lives.