September 5, 2003

VUMC to participate in NIH-funded bioterrorism defense consortium

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Dr. Mark Denison will serve as a co-principal investigator and steering committee member for the NIH-funded bioterrorism defense consortium. Dana Johnson

VUMC to participate in NIH-funded bioterrorism defense consortium

Vanderbilt University Medical Center will be one of six Southeastern universities to lead a new consortium to study microbes that could be used in a bioterrorist attack. On Thursday, Tommy Thompson, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced that the National Institutes of Health will provide more than $45 million to establish the Southeast Regional Center of Excellence for Emerging Infections and Biodefense (SERCEB).

The SERCEB, one of four national regional centers of excellence, will have a leadership steering committee of investigators from Vanderbilt, Duke University, Emory University, University of North Carolina, University of Florida at Gainesville and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In addition, numerous other regional institutions will participate in scientific and training programs, including Meharry Medical College.

At Vanderbilt, Dr. Mark Denison, associate professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology & Immunology, will serve as a co-principal investigator and steering committee member. Denison has recently received international attention for his research since the outbreak of SARS, which has been traced back to the coronavirus.

“SARS provides an example of how basic research over many years made it possible to rapidly identify the agent and contain the epidemic,” Denison said. “The targeted bacteria and viruses to be studied in SERCEB are all important human pathogens, and many of them have not been studied as well as they need to be.”

The centers will work together to develop the next generation of vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tests for defense against organisms like smallpox that could be used in bioterrorist attacks, as well as against emerging infections such as SARS. The center will develop and conduct research programs, but will also train researchers and other personnel, and develop comprehensive scientific core facilities that will support the center’s research and training work. The facilities will allow investigators to perform basic research and test vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for emerging infections and select agents.

“That the SERCEB was awarded to Vanderbilt and its partner institutions is a tribute to the efforts of Mark Denison, Peter Wright and so many of their colleagues who prepared this grant, and most importantly, clearly recognize our broad-based and significant research programs in infectious diseases,” said Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the School of Medicine.

Research is slated to begin at Vanderbilt and the other institutions this fall. Investigators from several Vanderbilt departments will participate, including Pediatrics, Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, Chemistry, Biomedical Engineering and the Office for Diversity.

Initial work will focus on orthopoxviruses which include smallpox, as well as anthrax, plague, brucellosis, and tularemia. Vanderbilt will participate in studies including: how viruses target and enter host cells; the development of immunity to specific agents; how to prevent infections by vaccines; and novel approaches for vaccination against possible agents of bioterrorism.

As part of the study, Denison said, the consortium’s participants will develop new approaches for the detection and diagnosis of specific agents and support pilot/feasibility projects. SERCEB will also support career development for training new and established scientists in biodefense, which will place an emphasis on attracting and training minority scientists.

“Vanderbilt has many profound strengths in biomedical research, training and education,” said Denison. “Our leadership in this regional consortium with other outstanding institutions will allow us to make critical, fundamental discoveries that can help protect our population, benefit people around the world who may already suffer from some of these diseases, and influence the direction of biomedical research at a national level.”

Government partners include the Centers for Disease Control, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the NIH. SERCEB will also work with NIH-funded National Biocontainment Laboratories in other regions.