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Vanderbilt vaccine pioneer James Crowe honored with major science prize

Jul. 9, 2019, 8:57 AM


by Bill Snyder

James Crowe Jr., MD, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, will be honored today by the science and technology company Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany for his contributions to developing new therapeutics and vaccines against some of the world’s deadliest viruses.

James Crowe Jr., MD, and colleagues are exploring how the body’s immune system gears up to fight off infection.
James Crowe Jr., MD, is being honored for his contributions to developing new therapeutics and vaccines against some of the world’s deadliest viruses. (photo by John Russell)

Half of the company’s new 1 million Euro ($1.1 million) Future Insight Prize will go to Vanderbilt University Medical Center to support Crowe’s research and half to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to support Pardis Sabeti, DPhil, MD, who is developing genetic strategies to stop viruses like Ebola.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, which is not affiliated with the United States-based Merck & Co. Inc., presented the prize July 9 during a ceremony at company headquarters in Darmstadt.

The annual Future Insight Prize was established in 2018 “to stimulate groundbreaking science and innovative development of key products or technologies, to bring meaningful visions to life for the benefit of humanity,” according to Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.

“We are deeply honored that Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany has recognized our team’s aspirational goals to come up with next-generation solutions for pandemics,” said Crowe, the Ann Scott Carell Professor in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Departments of Pediatrics and Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

“It is very inspiring that a venerable, 351-year old company like Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany has cast a vision to stimulate innovation, curiosity and impact on the future of health,” he said.

Crowe and his colleagues are on the cutting edge of developing innovative technologies for the isolation and study of antiviral antibodies and for significantly advancing, through their pioneering work in computational immunology, the rational design of vaccines and antibodies.

They have isolated human monoclonal antibodies for many pathogenic viruses, including Zika, HIV, dengue, influenza, Ebola, West Nile, norovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rotavirus. Their research has led to patents and licensures for several neutralizing antibodies and vaccines, some of which have progressed to clinical trials.

With C. Buddy Creech, MD, MPH, associate professor of Pediatrics and director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Crowe is leading an international effort to develop a universal influenza vaccine that would protect against all strains of the flu anywhere in the world.

He is participating in a five-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop protective antibody treatments that can be rushed to health care providers within 60 days after the outbreak of viral diseases like chikungunya and Zika anywhere in the world.

In another DARPA-supported project, Crowe’s lab is partnering with Moderna Inc., a biotech firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to test whether injections of encapsulated genetic material will trigger rapid production of potent, virus-neutralizing antibodies in people who are infected and or at-risk of being infected by chikungunya.

Winners of the 2019 Future Insight Prize were selected by a 63-member jury of scientists, academicians, health care and corporate executives, philanthropists and science editors from around the world, including Nancy Cox, PhD, director of the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute.

Officials of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany said the Future Insight Prize was created “to stimulate innovative solutions to solve some of humanities greatest problems and to realize the dreams for a better tomorrow in the areas of health, nutrition and energy.”

This year’s inaugural prize recognizes “pandemic protectors,” methods and products that should make it possible to swiftly detect, treat and prevent the spread of emerging pathogens, “and in doing so protect humanity against the outbreak of a new, global plague,” the company said.

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany plans to award grants of up to 1 million Euros annually for the next 35 years to incentivize research and technological development, company officials said.

Next year’s award will honor research aimed at “breaking” or preventing development of resistance to multiple anti-bacterial drugs.

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