Plug-and-Play Vaccines?

The SARS scare proves a boon to a small and nimble outfit with some timely expertise in gene therapies

Ten years ago, Genvec was founded to cure disease by delivering new genes to people with illnesses such as cystic fibrosis. So far, such gene therapy hasn't led to products. But the Gaithersburg (Md.) company believes its technology will pay off -- in vaccines.

The approach starts with a weakened version of a microbe called an adenovirus. Into this, scientists insert genes for a deadly bug, such as HIV. People who are given the rejiggered adenovirus won't contract AIDS. The added genes prompt cells to make HIV proteins, stimulating an immune response that may protect against infection.

GenVec (GNVC ) has been working with the National Institutes of Health on an AIDS vaccine. But when the SARS epidemic hit, CEO Paul H. Fischer, realized that his technology could be quickly adapted for the new illness. All the company's scientists needed was the genetic sequence. "For SARS or any other rapidly emerging biothreat, we can go directly from the genetic blueprint to make a synthetic gene and put it in the adenovirus vector," he explains.

In 15 days, GenVec hammered out an agreement with the NIH to make the vaccine against SARS.

By John Carey in New York

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