By GREGORY ZELLER //
Be afraid, Zika virus.
With 1,500 square feet of new wet-lab space and buckets of confidence, the big thinkers at Codagenix are targeting your chemical code – with a candidate vaccine likely ready for animal testing inside of six weeks.
So says J. Robert Coleman, the Farmingdale State College biology professor who cofounded the 2012 startup with Stony Brook University assistant research professor Steffen Mueller. Zika is a flavivirus – a genus including the West Nile, yellow fever and dengue viruses, among others – and since Codagenix has already produced a leading dengue vaccine candidate, Zika is “right in our wheelhouse,” according to Coleman.
“Zika is a lot like dengue,” he said. “So we’re bullish that we can replicate what we did with dengue virus.”
What Codagenix did with dengue was “re-code” the virus, using a proprietary software program to engineer a potential vaccine. That candidate was added to a pipeline of viral and bacterial vaccine candidates awaiting field tests, including an intranasal influenza vaccine scheduled for human trials later this year.
Before then, the company will take the fight to the Zika virus, which was discovered in the 1940s along the Africa-to-Asia equatorial belt and has recently migrated west with alarming intensity.
With its relocation from SBU’s Long Island High Technology Incubator to the new digs at Farmingdale State College’s Broad Hollow Bioscience Park complete, Codagenix is wasting no time. Its researchers have already created “synthetic Zika cassettes” and started growing the virus locally – the new lab is rated Biosafety Level 2 and boasts “all the necessary safety procedures to safely handle it,” Coleman noted – and “hope to have something to announce within six weeks,” according to the cofounder.
“We’re trying to be a little coy about it, because you see a lot of big companies saying they’re working on it,” Coleman added. “We’ll save the big announcement for when we actually have a candidate to be tested in animals.”
Best part: Hitting the gas on Zika virus won’t slow Codagenix’s progress on any of its other vaccine candidates. That’s due equally to the spacious new lab and the power of the re-coding software, Coleman noted.
“The technology is very rapid,” he said. “We can produce multiple vaccine candidates simultaneously and quickly.”
A Zika vaccine can’t come fast enough for overwhelmed medical officials from French Polynesia to Central America. With the World Health Organization issuing increasingly dire warnings – last week, the WHO cautioned pregnant women to avoid Zika-outbreak zones and to abstain from sexual relations with partners who travel to affected areas – Zika virus cases have spiked along the equator and, increasingly, in points north.
Symptoms of the mosquito-carried virus are usually mild, mimicking dengue fever and requiring only bedrest. But researchers have long cited possible links between Zika and microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes head-size and brain-development deviations in newborn babies of infected mothers.
With increasing global attention focused on Zika virus, Codagenix’s move into its spacious Broad Hollow Bioscience Park facility comes at exactly the right moment. The move, which went smoothly and was completed on schedule in mid-February, is already paying dividends, Coleman noted, and not only with more elbow room.
The lab is “more centrally located for the employees and founders” than was Codagenix’s space at Stony Brook, according to Coleman, and it provides easier access to New York City and major regional airports. That geographic convenience was evident earlier this month, when Codagenix entertained a potential agricultural partner from the Midwest who flew into and out of LaGuardia Airport.
“We like the new space,” Coleman said. “We’re excited to be here. We just hope more companies come join us.”