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N.J. biopharma company seeks more funding for ricin vaccine after tainted letters

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Soligenix, a biopharmaceutical company in Princeton, received new attention this week after ricin was found in letters mailed to several government officials including President Obama.

Soligenix is actively working to develop vaccines for bioterrorism agents such as ricin, but funding the research remains a challenge, according to company president and CEO, Christopher J. Schaber.

“Every biodefense program needs to be sponsored by the government,” said Schaber. “We don’t spend our own money on biodefense. The company could not take off with biodefense unless we secure a large procurement contract from the government, which are typically in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Because of the incident on Capitol Hill, we hope there is a heightened interest in support,” Schaber said.

Currently, there is no vaccine available to protect against ricin exposure or reverse its effects once a person is exposed. Ricin is a byproduct of the castor bean, so it’s easy to obtain in large quantities, said Schaber. Once a person is exposed to lethal doses of ricin, Schaber said, death is irreversible after four hours and the person will die in three to five days.

“It’s not as contagious as anthrax or smallpox because you actually have to ingest it, but it’s still very dangerous,” he said.

Soligenix is operating under a $9.4 million grant award from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which will fund the development of formulation and manufacturing processes for vaccines, including RiVax, and VeloThrax, an anthrax vaccine. One human clinical trial has been completed, and a second trial is currently being conducted on small animals and non-human primates.

Soligenix has been working on RiVax for nine years, and Schaber is hoping for another $25-$35 million in funding to keep the study going.

The RiVax vaccine, when available, would likely not be given to the masses, but would be administered to those who are highly susceptible, such as mailroom workers, first responders, government officials and the military.

Less than 50 percent of the company’s development pipeline is in biodefense. The rest is biotherapeutics, where Soligenix is working on medications for pediatric Crohn’s disease and chronic gastrointestinal disease.

Soligenix’s share price rose 20 percent this week after the ricin-laced letters to government officials were publicized.

Soligenix would make money if the government stockpiles the vaccine, but the research has to be funded and it has to get FDA approval before the company can procure a government contract.

“We’ve taken this very far with the support of the NIH (National Institutes of Health), but we really need to get a larger contract with more funding to allow us to move forward,” Schaber said. “The government many times doesn’t move that quickly on these things, especially because a lot of people haven’t died. But it’s better to be proactive than reactive, and move this forward before there are casualties.”


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