UC Irvine scientists to develop vaccine to combat bioterrorism threat from deadly bacteria


NIH awards $5.8M grant to support research

Irvine, Calif., Aug. 25, 2004 -- Researchers at UC Irvine will develop a vaccine against the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, an organism that can be dispersed by an aerosol spray and used as an agent for biological terrorism. The research will be supported by a $5.8 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

B. pseudomallei, which is resistant to many antibiotics, causes melioidosis, an infectious and deadly disease that affects humans and animals. At present, no vaccine against melioidosis exists.

"The development of a vaccine against B. pseudomallei is a national and worldwide goal, and is the best way to blunt a bioterrorist threat," said Philip Felgner, principal investigator of the research project and director of the proteomics laboratory within the Center for Virus Research. "Even if we have antibiotics, it will be difficult to treat everyone affected. With the availability of a safe and effective vaccine, however, terrorists may not even proceed to develop weapons that use B. pseudomallei."

Melioidosis occurs primarily in tropical regions, such as Southeast Asia and northern Australia. It is currently the leading cause of sepsis in northeastern Thailand, where infection rates are high during the rainy season since the bacterium thrives in water. Transmission occurs when humans and animals inhale dust bearing the bacteria, when they drink contaminated water, or when their skin abrasions come into direct contact with contaminated soil. Contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person also can spread the disease.

Symptoms of melioidosis include fever, anorexia, muscle aches and chest pain. The disease can result in pulmonary infections ranging from mild bronchitis to severe pneumonia. Some patients also suffer septic shock.

"We can learn from what is happening in Thailand, where melioidosis is causing many people to die from septic shock," said Felgner. "An outbreak of the disease in the United States would be devastating, made worse by how difficult it is to treat patients suffering from this disease."

B. pseudomallei, an intracellular bacterium, grows and replicates within mammalian cells. After it has entered a cell, it is hard for antibodies to kill the bacterium without also permanently damaging the cell.

The research at UCI will be conducted in Felgner's proteomics laboratory, which belongs to a group of on-campus biodefense laboratories developing vaccines and other countermeasures that target infectious microorganisms. Felgner's research group will generate the B. pseudomallei proteome, i.e., all the proteins encoded by the genes in B. pseudomallei, to identify antigens useful for developing a vaccine against the bacterium.

UCI's Center for Virus Research is in the School of Biological Sciences. Felgner will be joined in the research at UCI by Luis Villarreal, director of the center, and D. Huw Davies, an immunologist and an associate project scientist in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. The three scientists will also collaborate with the laboratories of Dr. Richard Titball at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories at Porton Down, United Kingdom; Dr. Gregory Bancroft at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and Dr. Ganjana Lertmemongkolchai at Khon Kaen University, Thailand.

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