Working To Prevent A Pandemic

Linda Dela Cruz
Wednesday - May 24, 2006
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Mike Liberman, Ph.D., Beth-Ann Coller, Ph.D., David Clements, M.S., Carolyn Weeks-Levy, Ph.D. and Len Firestone, M.D.
Mike Liberman, Ph.D., Beth-Ann Coller, Ph.D.,
David Clements, M.S., Carolyn Weeks-Levy, Ph.D.
and Len Firestone, M.D.

The ABC television drama Fatal Contact: Bird Flu In America , which aired on May 9, portrayed a fictional version of what would happen if a pandemic of the avian flu - now only in birds - mutated and spread through humans across the globe. While that show was not based on a true story, it did show the likely race against time to develop a vaccine for the avian flu - should that scenario ever become real.

The Aiea-based Hawaii Biotech is on the forefront of breakthrough research and technology, so it will be ready with a vaccine for the avian flu and other diseases such as dengue fever and West Nile virus.

The firm’s chief executive officer, Leonard Firestone, M.D., is charged with leading Hawaii Biotech in that direction. He describes actions to be taken if the avian flu mutates into a disease spreadable from person to person.

“If a man gets it, the airports will need to shut down, and tourism will vanish as a vaccine for everyone in that country will be needed,” explains Firestone. “The area needs to be quarantined, then you vaccinate around the immediate area first to contain it the best you can.”

Hawaii Biotech has a vaccine for dengue fever and for West Nile virus that they’ve been testing on animals so far. Before they can get the vaccine to be used on a global scale, they need to complete tests with the vaccines on humans to gain more data on how the vaccines work.

“Every epidemic started as an animal disease,” Firestone notes. “AIDS was in monkeys and somehow it mutated. The bubonic plague was from animals.”

An Australian-based company called Avantogen, with which Firestone recently worked, has agreed to partner with Hawaii Biotech. Avantogen has developed an adjuvant technology, which combined with Hawaii Biotech’s existing products, could create a more effective, potent vaccine. Hawaii Biotech utilizes recombinant DNA technology, which means you can manufacture vaccines without chicken eggs (the current method of choice) and without a live virus. The process for recombinant technology shortens manufacturing time for vaccines from around one year down to anywhere from three to six months. The end result is a faster, purer, safer vaccine, notes Firestone.

“We can develop a vaccine that can prevent an outbreak,” says Firestone.

Hawaii Biotech has received more than $30 million from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies to create vaccines. With 45 people in the company, they hope to hire more employees in the future. The firm’s cardio division will spin off into its own company, Cardax Pharmaceuticals, where former Hawaii Biotech chief executive officer David Watumull will take the reins.

Hawaii Biotech was started in the 1980s by several University of Hawaii scientists.

Firestone’s goals include raising $15 million in capital to accelerate the influenza program, and to take the company from a private to a public one. He also wishes to bring the vaccines from the laboratory stage of testing on animals to the clinical stage of testing on humans for West Nile and dengue in Hawaii by next year.

“My job is communication to get the story out so Wall Street gets the story out, and everyone is enthusiastic,” he explains. Firestone’s resume includes serving as CEO, president, chief medical officer and director of Manhattan Pharmaceuticals in New York for two years. He has been a professor at three medical schools, spending 10 years at Yale, 10 at Harvard, and 15 at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I’m the bridge between the scientific work and the community. I have to convey this information to our investors in very simple terms, and it’s something that I’m used to doing. I’ve taught young doctors who have an ordinary science background. I take pride in using terms that they are able to understand.”

Hawaii Biotech is located at 99-193 Aiea Heights Drive, Suite 200. For more information, log onto

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