September 26, 2013

Vaccine Research Program lands major NIH renewal

The Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program has received a major contract from the National Institutes of Health to continue its work as one of the nation’s Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units.

Kathryn Edwards, M.D., and Buddy Creech, M.D., MPH, lead the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, which recently received renewed funding from the National Institutes of Health. (photo by Anne Rayner)

The Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program (VVRP) has received a contract from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue its work as one of the nation’s Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Units (VTEU). Vanderbilt is one of nine institutions that have the potential to receive funding up to $135 million per year from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the NIH, over a seven-year period.

“This contract renewal is evidence of the importance of this work to public health on an international and national scale,” said Kathryn Edwards, M.D., Sarah H. Sell and Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Pediatrics, and director of the VVRP.

“Our VVRP is well established as a leader in vaccine research and development and our relationship with the NIH has afforded us an unprecedented opportunity to work on the cutting edge of vaccine development over the years. We have been pleased to have attracted the best and brightest researchers and clinicians to Vanderbilt to continue this work well into the future.”

Edwards accepted the role of principal investigator for the Vanderbilt VTEU in 2002. The unit may work on phase 1, 2, 3 and 4 clinical trials to evaluate vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for safety and effectiveness in a domestic or international setting. VTEUs are on the forefront of research in fighting and preventing infectious diseases. Edwards credits Vanderbilt’s VTEU with helping to grow the institution’s profile over the years as a leader in vaccine development, attracting the best and the brightest talent in vaccine research and science.

“This renewal is the culmination of over a year’s worth of effort from the VVRP and the Department of Pediatrics. Additionally, it is a testimony to the rich research infrastructure of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine to support work that is critical to the nation in order to prepare for potential pandemics,” said Buddy Creech, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, associate director of the VVRP and co-principal investigator of the Vanderbilt VTEU.

As a VTEU for the NIH, the VVRP has conducted trials to inform public policy twice in the last decade to address potential pandemic concerns: once to test and evaluate the H1N1 influenza vaccine at the start of the 2009 pandemic, and again just this month to evaluate a vaccine against a potential future pandemic threat from the H7N9 avian influenza.

Other research projects involve the testing of enhancements to the formulation of influenza vaccines to improve their protective power. The additives that are used to enhance flu vaccine are called “adjuvants.”

“When these adjuvants are added to vaccines, they improve the responses and reduce the amount of vaccine needed,” Edwards said. “This has proven to be particularly important in avian influenza vaccines which can lack the ability to adequately stimulate a protective response in our immune systems.”

Edwards says adjuvants are also exciting because of their potential to help avoid vaccine shortages in the future. If an adjuvant makes a vaccine 20 times more potent, it allows manufacturers to stretch vaccine supplies into 20 times more doses.

“That might mean, in the case of pandemic flu, that we can protect our population and others in developing countries that do not have the potential to make vaccines,” Edwards said.

Vanderbilt’s VTEU has worked on numerous critically important childhood vaccines over the years that have saved countless lives. These include, among others, the rotavirus vaccine to protect against the leading cause of diarrheal illness among children in the United States; the transition from a whole cell pertussis vaccine to a new, safer acellular version; and examination of vaccine use in high risk populations, including immunocompromised children, premature infants and pregnant women.

They have also evaluated vaccines and therapeutics intended for the developing world, such as vaccines targeting malaria and new treatment options for tuberculosis.

The Vanderbilt VTEU began its work under the direction of Peter Wright, M.D., former Shedd Professor of Pediatric Infectious Disease.

The unit was called into full action for the first time in 1976 to test a vaccine in advance of what was feared to be a swine flu epidemic.