Wizard of Preventive Health

Andrew Lees has worked his magic to make vaccines more effective.

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Winter 2021

In 1984, Baltimore magazine was prescient when it put Andrew Lees, Ph.D. ’84, on the cover of its issue touting “84 People to Watch in ’84” — but not, perhaps, for the reason it cited.

Lees, wearing a tuxedo, holding a wand and cradling two rabbits (one in a top hat, the other on his shoulder), was identified as “Magician Andrew Lees.” In some respects, Lees thinks the magazine pegged him properly. When he was studying biophysics at Johns Hopkins, “I was more magician than graduate student,” he recalls. He performed six nights a week at a local restaurant and at birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings, trade shows — even an Irish wake.

In the years since then, however, it is Lees’ advances in vaccine research that have earned him the spotlight, including a Distinguished Alumnus Award from Johns Hopkins University in 2019.

While pursuing research at the National Institutes of Health and the Uniformed Services University, Lees became a leading expert at chemically “putting antibodies into polymers.” This forms the basis of conjugate vaccines — which make regular vaccines more effective, especially for immunizing children against streptococcus pneumonia, meningococcal disease and S. pneumoniae.

Lees’ breakthrough was an innovative method for linking proteins chemically that became widely used in producing conjugate vaccines while reducing their cost significantly.

In 2006, he started his own company, Fina Biosolutions — named for his family’s cat, Fina. Holding 25 patents and working with such firms as GlaxoSmithKline, the Serum Institute of India and Chengdu Institute of Biological Products, Lees and FinaBio have become internationally acclaimed and critically important in fostering the production of less expensive vaccines, particularly for undeveloped countries.

Lees did this without ever obtaining money from investors. “This is the basis for what I call our ‘not-for-much-profit business model.’ We don’t have any investors, so we don’t need to make money for other people.

“I consider this one of my best magic tricks,” he says