NIH awards institute $18.8 million for major infectious disease study

SAN DIEGO — Researchers from the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology will take aim at several of the world's most dangerous infectious diseases — tuberculosis, malaria and dengue virus — in a five-year, $18.8 million federally funded set of projects seeking to make new inroads toward vaccines against the disorders. 

The institute received four project awards totaling $18.8 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to fund the study, announced Dec. 17. The study also includes a component on smallpox, a deadly infectious disease eradicated worldwide, which remains a focus because of bioterrorism concerns.

Alessandro Sette, an expert on vaccine development and director of the La Jolla Institute's Center for Infectious Disease, will lead the study, which focuses on identifying epitopes — pieces of a virus or microbe that cause the body's immune system to launch an attack. Epitopes are important for protective immunity and are key to developing new and more effective vaccines.

Several immunology researchers from around the country praised the projects as promising and timely.

"A recent NIH workshop identified the lack of epitope information as a key ‘missing link’ in the search for effective malaria vaccines," said John T. Harty, a professor in microbial immunology at the University of Iowa, who studies basic immunology that can inform vaccine design.

Steven A. Porcelli, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, emphasized the importance of the work of the La Jolla Institute team in narrowing down the list of epitopes so that vaccines can be constructed that will focus the immune response in the correct way.

"For many of the major infections for which we lack an effective vaccine, the causative microbes are extremely complex and contain hundreds or even thousands of potential individual targets or epitopes," Porcelli said. "The efforts being undertaken by the La Jolla Institute group are going to help sort out this complex mixture of good and bad [epitope] targets, and will help many researchers working toward development of vaccines against some of the most deadly infections in the world today."

According to the World Health Organization, about 1.6 million people die from tuberculosis each year and another nearly 1 million deaths are caused by malaria. In both diseases, people living in the poorest countries are the most vulnerable, with the majority of deaths occurring in the developing world. Currently, no vaccine exists for malaria. The WHO states that about 3.3 billion people — half the world's population —are at risk for malaria. For tuberculosis, the only vaccine available, BCG, has varying degrees of efficacy. These factors, coupled with the emergence of multi-drug-resistant strains for both tuberculosis and malaria, have made the search for new, more effective counter-measures a major public health concern.

Now categorized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as an emerging disease threat, dengue virus infects an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide annually, with 250,000 cases of the severest form reported each year. Primarily found in Southeast Asia and Latin America, dengue cases have now been reported in Mexico and mosquitoes capable of transmitting the virus have been found recently in the U.S.