Race For The Cure

Hawaii biotech inc. leads in the global race for a dengue fever vaccine.

January, 2002

The next step for Hawaii Biotech will include a human challenge trial, in which humans are given a vaccine followed by a small dose of the actual dengue fever virus.

David Watumull never predicted the current dengue fever outbreak in Hawaii, but he has spent more than 10 years preparing for it. Over the course of the last decade, Watumull, president of Hawaii Biotech Inc., has raised about $10 million to fund the company’s dengue fever vaccine research. And while he is not looking to take advantage of the current situation to secure additional funding, Watumull says he is in the process of seeking about another $2.5 million in financing and research funding, and that he is confident investors will step up to the plate.

“Plans for funding were set in motion prior to the recent events, but (they) do strengthen our case,” says Watumull. Hawaii Biotech’s current funding is around $800,000.

The rash of dengue fever in Hawaii has prompted the company to move up its human testing phase – originally scheduled for three to four years from now – to 12 to 15 months from now. Watumull says major setbacks encountered by competing technologies around the globe have thrust Hawaii Biotech into the lead in the race for a dengue fever vaccine. Two of its major competitors, Britain-based Acambis and the multinational corporation Aventis Pasteur — which were both developing individual dengue vaccines, and recently entered into a joint-venture deal — suffered recent impedances. Aventis’ initial human trials did not give the kind of antibody responses they were looking for, and Acambis saw mutations in its vaccine that caused significant safety concerns.

The next step for Hawaii Biotech will include a human challenge trial, in which humans are given a vaccine followed by a small dose of the actual dengue fever virus. If that trial is successful, the next step will be to license the vaccine to a major vaccine company. According to Watumull, the value of a vaccine license would typically be around $15 million up front, plus another $50 million as the vaccine goes through the final process and substantial royalties following Food and Drug Administration approval.

“People have worked on this vaccine throughout the world for 40 years without success, and clearly dengue fever research is more important than ever right now,” he says. However, regardless of the 82 cases that have been confirmed (as of press time) in Hawaii, Watumull assures us that Hawaii Biotech would still be pressing just as hard to find a cure.

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Author:

Jacy L. Youn