November 16, 2007

Vaccine research gets $24M booster shot

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Kathryn Edwards, M.D.

Vaccine research gets $24M booster shot

Vanderbilt University Medical Center will receive nearly $24 million from the federal government over the next seven years to continue evaluating innovative vaccines for malaria, pandemic flu and other infections.

“Obtaining funding for this contract is remarkable, especially in light of shrinking federal budgets for research,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research. “Vaccine development is a powerful tool to fight disease on a broad, public scale.

The renewal of the contract between Vanderbilt's Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit (VTEU) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), comes at a key time for vaccine research, said the unit's principal investigator, Kathryn Edwards, M.D.

“When we meet at the NIH in December to chart the course of our research in the VTEU, pandemic flu vaccine will be one of the first vaccines that we are called upon to test,” said Edwards, professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Pediatric Clinical Research.

Edwards has led the Vanderbilt VTEU, one of eight in the country funded by the NIH, since 2002.

Peter Wright, M.D., Shedd Professor of Pediatric Infectious Disease, directed the unit for more than 20 years beginning in the 1970s. The unit morphed from a small vaccine clinic serving children to a testing center of national importance when swine flu hit in 1976.

Since then, and with the addition of research projects led by Edwards and James Crowe, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and director of the Vanderbilt Program in Vaccine Sciences, and others, it has been recognized internationally for its work on vaccines against serious childhood infections including respiratory syncytial virus and haemophilius influenzae.

“I think Vanderbilt getting this VTEU funding is huge and a tribute to Kathy and Jim Crowe's work,” said Wright. “It all forms part of an integrated structure, with Jim's vaccine research program and Kathy's expertise in clinical evaluation being synergistic.”

Balser agreed.

“For the VTEU to remain on the cutting edge of this discovery process is a testament to the strength of this extraordinary research team,” Balser said.

The VTEU was the basis for establishing Vanderbilt's HIV Vaccine Testing Unit in 1988. This long history of responding quickly to the microbial “hot topic” of the day has made Vanderbilt an international leader in vaccine research.

“The contract will allow us to address growing challenges in this area of research,” Edwards added. Among them: how to increase the number of individuals who participate in these important studies.

“We have to get the entire community involved to answer these critical vaccine questions,” said Edwards.

“We cannot go back to the same well. Those folks who have already participated in pandemic flu trials will not be eligible to participate in another round of these trials. We need new volunteers.”

Edwards said the VTEU will also work to increase racial and ethnic diversity, “so that if there were a pandemic flu, we will have vaccine that will work for all.”

Some of the funds will support development of substances that can enhance the strength of the vaccines and thus reduce the amount and number of doses needed. These substances are called adjuvants.

“When these adjuvants are added to vaccines, they improve the responses and reduce the amount of vaccine needed,” Edwards said. “Some may make a vaccine 50 times more potent, allowing us to produce 50 times the 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.”

Vanderbilt researchers also are working on cytomegalovirus (CMV) prevention, new types of seasonal influenza vaccines and, in collaboration with colleagues at Stanford University, an innovative malaria vaccine.

“The malaria vaccine uses a malaria protein carried in adenovirus (common cold virus),” said Edwards. “Using this 'Trojan horse' approach, we hope to improve the response to the vaccine.”