August 20, 2012

School receives $10.2M award

By: Cathleen F. Crowley

Source: Times Union

ALBANY — Scientists at Albany Medical College received a five-year, $10.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine against a dangerous bioterror weapon.

The award, which is the largest in the college's history, brings the total grant funding for tularemia research at the school to $27.8 million since researchers there began studying the bacteria in 2002.

Tularemia is caused by a naturally occurring bacteria (tularensis) that can be weaponized.

The project has grown so much that the college is building a new biosafety lab to accommodate the research. The new lab will be three times larger than the old one.

"Quite a few people are working on this project," said Dennis Metzger, professor and director of the college's Center for Immunology & Microbial Disease.

The work involves 24 scientists including nine professor-level researchers. Six more scientists will be hired to help with the research, Metzger said. The researchers also collaborate with New York Medical College and the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

Tularensis bacteria can be found in soil and water and can be transmitted to humans via rodents (earning the nickname "rabbit fever"). This non-airborne form of tularemia is not life-threatening and can be treated with antibiotics. However, if inhaled, the bacteria can be deadly.

Respiratory tularemia is considered a category A (the highest) bio-threat by the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases because a very small number of bacteria, 10 to 15 organisms, can be fatal and can be disseminated fairly easily as an aerosol, Metzger said. During the Cold War, stockpiles of the bacteria were kept by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

There is no vaccine for respiratory tularemia.

"When we started out, there were maybe three or four labs in the country studying this pathogen," Metzger said. "We didn't know very much about how it caused disease or how to prevent the disease from developing. In the intervening years, we've learned a lot about the disease process and how we may protect (from it). We feel confident now that we can develop a vaccine against the strain of bacteria that is the most deadly."

Unlike with other respiratory infections, the human lungs do not fight tularemia.

"Our body seems to essentially have no defense against it," Metzger said. "That's a real challenge. If you don't have any natural defense, trying to induce a natural defense in the lung is very challenging."

The vaccine Albany Medical College researchers are creating targets the immune cells that initiate protective responses and induce local immunity in the lung. It is an inhaled vaccine that includes dead tularensis and antibodies.

So far, it has been successful in mice. The new grant will allow the lab to better understand how the vaccine works and develop a version that may eventually be tested in humans.