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Cranbury biotech gets $2.2M to develop dengue vaccine

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Cranbury-based biotechnology company VaxInnate Corp. has received a $2.2 million grant from the federal government to develop a vaccine to prevent dengue, a mosquito-borne viral disease that kills about 25,000 people annually worldwide.

There are no commercially available vaccines to prevent dengue, which is prominent in Latin America and Southeast Asia, but is spreading globally, according to health groups.

VaxInnate will use its proprietary technology to advance pre-clinical development of a vaccine over the next three years based on the grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, according to a news release.  

Dengue, pronounced den-gee, causes flu-like illness marked by fever, headaches, and joint and muscle pain. Though death from dengue is rare, VaxInnate CEO Wayne Pisano said it's a costly malady because it often requires hospitalization. Many regions affected by the disease are impoverished, he said.  

“When you're dealing with a flu pandemic, speed counts,” Pisano said.

This grant marks the fourth time VaxInnate has received federal funding. The firm has previously received earmarks from the defense department to develop vaccines to prevent dengue and malaria.

The Cranbury firm employs about 55. Pisano said existing employees will conduct research on the dengue vaccine though the Middlesex County firm will likely add five or six workers as a result of the grant.

The disease is uncommon in North America and western Europe, though the particular mosquito that carries the disease has migrated to southern Europe and about 23 southern United States, Pisano said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says dengue is rare in America because of infrequent contact with people and the mosquitoes carrying the virus. Pisano says warm climate could encourage further northward migration among the insects.

There is no cure for dengue, also called “breakbone fever” because of its associated joint and muscle pain. Patients are treated with fluids and drugs to reduce fever. The CDC says early recognition and treatment substantially lowers the risk of developing severe disease.

Dengue outbreaks were also reported in Hawaii in 2001, Texas in 2005, and the Florida Keys between 2009 and 2011, according to the CDC.

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