Last week’s Second Annual Vaccine Biotechnology Conference at the Texas Medical Center drew many of the best and brightest in the vaccine sphere, including BCM’s Dr. Peter Hotez, who is the driving force behind the event. Houston’s rise in reputation as a leading source of research and development of vaccines for a wide range of diseases was on full display.
The agenda for the conference featured three main lecture sections, followed by Q and A, two of which — the Systems Vaccinology segment, led by Dr. Hotez himself, and the Innovations in Vaccine Biotechnology segment, led by Dr. Michael J. Heffernan of BCM — were research-heavy, giving some of the world’s top vaccinologists the opportunity to share data, results, and new ideas. However, the conference’s third panel on “Commercialization and Regulatory Implications,” as well as Anna Dragsbaek’s presentation as plenary speaker on the future of vaccine policy in Texas during lunch, took on some of the biggest challenges facing Houston and Texas in general when it comes to attracting more commercial biotech investment.
For a leader in vaccinology research such as Dr. Hotez, whose titles, positions, and accomplishments are enough to fill an article on their own, his role as founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and leadership role in the recently created Section of Pediatric Tropical Medicine, as well as holding the Texas Children’s Hospital Endowed Chair of Tropical Pediatrics, inextricably tie his work on researching NTDs, developing vaccines for them, and advocating for the people most affected by them, to the city of Houston. Because of this, his presence in Houston amounts to a downpayment on an investment he believes is worthwhile in expanding Houston’s biotech infrastructure to include more vaccine-based biotech commercial interests.
BioNews Texas Publisher Chris Comish had an opportunity to interview Dr. Hotez after the event on the idea behind starting the conference, what he is currently working on, and how Houston fits in to his work:
BNTX: What was the impetus for you starting the annual Vaccine Biotechnology Conference?
HOTEZ: At the Sabin Vaccine Institute, we are developing new vaccines for Neglected Tropical Diseases. When we brought the Sabin Vaccine Institute to Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, we were pleasantly surprised to find a lot of vaccine related biotechnology studies going on at the Texas Medical Center, especially in the areas of cancer vaccines, HIV/AIDS, and biodefense/influenza.
But it was scattered across the TMC, and no one was aware of what was going on at other institutions. Dr. Bottazzi and I thought it was important to establish a venue to bring people together, perhaps even with a possibility of establishing some type of consortium or federation of vaccinologists here.
BNTX: How would you measure or gauge its success thus far?
HOTEZ: New collaborations. For instance, we are now working with Dr. Cathy Yao in the department of surgery to look at her new C-Type Particle Vaccines.
BNTX: What impact do you think this could have on the growth of the biotechnology industry in Texas?
The TMC urgently needs to bring in some vaccine-related biotechs in order to leverage all of the exciting activities going on here. Houston is poised to take off as an important biotech hub.
BNTX: What do you hope to see happen over the next year as a result of the Vaccine Conference?
HOTEZ: Expanded collaborations leading to not only new grants, but actually advancing concepts into vaccines and biologicals going into clinical trials. Also, leveraging the expertise at our Sabin Vaccine Institute to venture into new areas, including cancer and other non-communicable diseases biodefense.
BNTX: How important is it for organization’s like BioNews Texas to provide coverage of events like this in Texas?
HOTEZ: Very helpful for getting the word out, especially for the nascent biotechnology activities in the state.
BNTX: Can you provide a bit more detail on your move to Texas, and specifically Houston as it relates to your work with NTDs?
HOTEZ: In 2011, we relocated the PDP (Product Development Partnership) laboratories of the Sabin Vaccine Institute to establish the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. This is a key institution of the newly established National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. As a result, we have significantly expanded our vaccine portfolio to include vaccines for Chagas Disease, Leishmaniasis, and for biodefense as well.