As reported by the San Francisco Examiner, May 2, 2005.

At the Forefront of Vaccine Medicine

By Tamara Grippi

As a child, Lance Gordon suffered from polio. From the time he was 4-years-old until he entered high school, Gordon spent part of every year in a hospital.

"I was indoctrinated in how damaging (disease) can be to people," he explained.

But Gordon, who earned his doctoral degree in biomedical sciences, would also experience the power of science to combat disease.

While serving as director of viral and bacterial vaccines research at Connaught Laboratories during the 1980s, Gordon invented the vaccine for what was considered the largest uncontrolled childhood disease in the United States at the time — infant meningitis.

Gordon has never forgotten the first moment during the company's trials when it became clear the vaccine was effective.

"I remember grabbing a hold of the pipes from the ceiling and literally swinging from it," he said.

After 25 years in the vaccine field, Gordon's passion for thwarting disease continues to be guided by his methodical, scientific approach.

Gordon, currently the president and CEO of biopharmaceutical firm, VaxGen Inc. (VXGN), Brisbane, is leading the company's massive effort to provide the U.S. government with 75 million doses of the company's anthrax vaccine.

VaxGen, launched as a spin-off from Genentech Inc. (DNA), in 1995, was awarded the $877.5 million contract in November.

The company acquired the results of 10-years worth of development on the anthrax vaccine conducted by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).

VaxGen, which has developed a large-scale manufacturing and research and development facility in California, is busily preparing to deliver its first shipment of 25 million doses in 2006.

"It's the largest single order for a vaccine ever done by the U.S. Government," Gordon said. "It is a pretty monumental challenge."

Part of the VaxGen and Gordon's ability to be positioned at the forefront of the vaccine development can be attributed to strong knowledge of the field and an understanding of the existing technologies.

While the threat of bioterrorism has sparked renewed interest in vaccines for anthrax and smallpox, the preventative side of science has not always received the attention it deserved, Gordon noted.

"Unfortunately, the field of vaccines has been considered the poor stepchild of the pharmaceuticals historically," Gordon said.

He noted that single drugs such as protein pump inhibitors sell more every year than the entire global supply of vaccines from all manufacturers.

VaxGen is also working to develop a safer smallpox vaccine for the U.S., based on technology that has already been licensed and used in Japan.

The "attenuated" vaccine is genetically altered to reduce or eliminate the serious side effects of the old smallpox vaccine — "one of the most dangerous vaccines ever used," Gordon said.

Despite his achievements, Gordon remains humble, expressing gratitude to his longtime mentor, the late microbiologist Maurice Hilleman, a man who invented or helped develop vaccines for most childhood illnesses — including measles, mumps and rubella to hepatitis B.

Some estimates credit Hilleman, who died last month, for saving 8 million lives a year, Gordon said.

"He was a poor boy from a Montana farm. He was smart and always tried to do the right thing," Gordon recalled. "He had the traits I'd like to emulate."

Lance Gordon

Family: Wife, Patricia Gordon, R.N., Ph.D., research faculty UCSF; son: Jeremy Gordon, president and CEO, Secret Level Inc., San Francisco; daughter: Ilsa Gordon works at Merrill Corp. in the Bay Area.

Hometown: Galesburg, Ill.

Education: Bachelors degree, Cal State Humboldt; doctoral degree, biomedical science, University of Connecticut, Farmington; post-doctoral fellowship, Washington University, St. Louis.

Reading now: "I enjoy audio books while commuting. Eclectic selection: classic, mystery, political, science fiction."

Favorite authors: Isaac Asimov, John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke.