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September 4, 2003


Emory One of Six Southeastern Universities Leading New $45 Million Biodefense Program

ATLANTA ≠ Emory University is part of a six-university consortium named today to lead a new biodefense initiative developing the next generation of vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tests against emerging infections such as SARS, and for defense against organisms such as smallpox that might be used in bioterrorist attacks.

The Southeast Regional Center of Excellence for Emerging Infections and Biodefense (SERCEB) will include researchers from Duke University Medical Center, Emory, University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of Florida, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The consortium will be centered at Duke and led by Barton Haynes, MD, of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. Its co-leaders are David Stephens, M., Emory University School of Medicine; Richard Whitley, MD, UAB; Richard Moyer, PhD., University of Florida; Frederick Sparling, MD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and Mark Denison, MD, Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Department of Health and Human Services today announced more than $45 million in funding over five years for the SERCEB consortium, one of eight "Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research." The centers will develop and conduct programs of basic and applied research; train researchers and other personnel for emerging infection and biodefense research activities; and develop and maintain comprehensive scientific core facilities to support their research and training activities.

Emory Universityís Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center anticipates receiving approximately $12 million over five years as part of the SERCEB funding. Research programs at Emory will include scientists in the School of Medicine, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, the Emory Vaccine Center, and the Rollins School of Public Health, and collaborations with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

SERCEB will also maintain and make available core facilities and other support to approved investigators from academia, industry and government agencies in the region. These investigators will be able to perform basic research and test and evaluate vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for emerging infections and select agents.

The consortiumís initial work will focus on developing new vaccines, diagnostics and treatments for orthopoxviruses (including smallpox and monkeypox), Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Y. pestis, the bacteria that causes plague.

Research is targeted to begin this fall at the six SERCEB member institutions. Government partners with the SERCEB teams will include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the NIH. In addition, research team members from the University of Michigan, Southern Research Institute, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University and Tulane University Primate Center will collaborate with SERCEB investigators.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Haynes noted, "We have organized a SERCEB research staff with new and powerful collaborative teams that cross institutions. The SERCEB includes some of the most outstanding investigators in immunology and infectious diseases in the United States. Each member institution has enormous resources. We believe that by working synergistically in this virtual center, we can address difficult problems in ways we could not address before, and with speed that will rapidly benefit the public. This funding will allow us to carry out unprecedented research in a collaborative manner."

SERCEB will develop new vaccines to prevent emerging infections and new drugs to treat infections for which current treatments may not be optimal. "Emory is excited to play an important role in this new NIH-funded regional center," said Emoryís Dr. Stephens. "The goals of SERCEB are to develop new vaccines, drugs and diagnostics for biological threats. Education and training in infectious diseases and biologic threats will also be an important component of SERCEB and Emory will play a leadership position in this area. Emory, Atlanta, and the partners of SERCEB are uniquely positioned to contribute to this critical national effort."

"The Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory, in partnership with the Tulane National Primate Research Center, will provide a critical component of this collaboration ≠- that being the Nonhuman Primate Animal Core within the Regional Center of Excellence," says Stuart Zola, PhD, director of the Yerkes Center and the Coreís primary investigator. "Our goal is to provide highly integrated support, animal expertise, clinical management, comprehensive clinical care and laboratory data using nonhuman primate models. Our research will provide a critical step between mouse models and clinical trials in humans."

"This is an important step in defending our country against both a wide variety of emerging infections and a potential bioterror attack," Haynes said. "Over the past year, we have seen natural outbreaks of SARS, West Nile Virus and monkeypox that were not anticipated. SERCEB investigators hope to develop general strategies that can help protect the public not only from potential bioterrorist agents such as smallpox, plague and anthrax, but also from naturally occurring emerging infections that so frequently jump from animals to man. SERCEB has organized a full continuum of resources, from basic scientists to those who can carry out clinical trials of developed vaccines and drugs. Our goal is to produce advances that will benefit the public as rapidly as possible.


Southeastern Regional Center of Excellence for Emerging Infections and Biodefense (SERCEB)

Emory University Projects

  • Increasing the Protective Efficacy of MVA
Mark Feinberg, MD, PhD, principal investigator
Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine; Medical Director, the Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center

Concerns about the potential use of smallpox as a bioterrorism agent have resulted in re-institution of smallpox vaccination programs. However, the currently available vaccines, such as Dryvax, are associated with high rates of adverse reactions and are not safe for use in immunodeficient individuals or those with a variety of medical conditions. Development of new and much safer smallpox vaccines that are equally or even more effective is imperative. Attenuated strains of vaccinia virus, especially modified vaccinia Ankara, have highly desirable safety features and impressive immunogenicity. However, scientists are concerned that MVA may not be sufficiently protective against smallpox or other highly pathogenic orthopoxviruses. Emory scientists will modify the currently available strain of MVA to develop novel vaccine variants that are safe but have greater cross-protection among orthopoxviruses. They will delete MVA evasion genes; make recombinant MVA genes that promote the recruitment of immune dendritic cells; and include other recombinant MVA genes that increase protective immune responses against key orthopoxvirus antigens.
  • Using Model Orthopoxviruses To Study Receptor Molecules That Help Viruses Enter Cells
Charles Parkos, MD, PhD, co-investigator
Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine

Rabbitpox virus (RPV) is an orthopoxvirus in the same family with smallpox and monkeypox. RPV will be used as a model orthopoxvirus to study the interactions between virus and host cells and specifically how receptors in these viruses help the viruses attach to cells and gain entry. This research could lead to the development of novel antiviral therapies that block the interactions between the receptors and orthopoxviruses.
  • Control of Anthrax Spore Formation
Charles P. Moran, Jr., PhD, co-investigator
Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine

Spore germination within the lungs is a critical part of the infectious cycle of anthrax. Scientists will work to develop drugs that can block spore germination, and determine spore proteins that control spore germination in order to control the germination cycle.
  • Immune Memory After Mucosal Vs. Systemic Vaccination
Rafi Ahmed, PhD, principal investigator
Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar; Director of the Emory Vaccine Center; Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine

Scientists will work to determine whether longterm immune memory is affected by the method of vaccination -- through the mucous membranes or systemically, through the blood, and whether vaccine adjuvants can regulate development of immune memory. The project will test vaccine efficacy and route of immunization using rabbitpox and anthrax.
  • RCE Immunology Core
John D. Altman, PhD, principal investigator
Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine, Director NIH Tetramer Core Facility at Emory University

The immunology core will serve research programs throughout the RCE by developing effective methods of measuring immune responses to diseases and vaccines.
  • RCE Nonhuman Primate Animal Core
Stuart P. Zola, PhD, principal investigator
Director, Yerkes National Primate Research Center

The nonhuman primate and laboratory core will be a joint venture between the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory and the Tulane National Primate Research Center. The core will provide support for numerous projects within SERCEB, in particular, the development of new vaccines for poxviruses, the development of improved immune strategies to optimize innate immune responses to Select Agent infections, and strategies to optimize mucosal immune response to Anthrax Protective Antigen
  • Career Development Project
David S. Stephens, MD, principal investigator
Professor and Director, Division of Infectious Diseases, Emory University School of Medicine

Emory University will be the lead institution in a career development project to train scientists throughout the region in high containment microbial science and biosafety, particularly in the practice and science of Class 3 and 4 select agents. The program will focus on the basic principles needed to understand how pathogenic agents cause disease, how they are transmitted, how they are evaluated based on risks, how these agents can be safely contained and used in research, health care, and pharmaceutical environments through proper training, facility and equipment design. The training program will include an overview of the numerous federal and state regulations governing the use and possession of biohazardous agents, as well as emerging biosafety issues regarding microbial pathogenesis, bioterrorism, human gene therapy and environmental risks. The program includes education and courses conducted by faculty at Emory University School of Medicine, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and the Rollins School of Public Health. Training will take place in a BSL3 and a mock BSL4 facility, with additional training in the CDCís actual BSL4 facility. Emory faculty will train and educate scientists and others who work with or supervise BSL3/4 agents, and also will train clinicians and other healthcare workers.
  • Development of New Reagents to Assess Immunity to Anthrax Vaccinated Individuals
Shane Crotty, PhD, principal investigator
Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine
Rafi Ahmed, PhD, principal investigator
Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar; Director of the Emory Vaccine Center; Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine

In individuals vaccinated against anthrax, anti-toxin circulating antibodies are a primary part of immune protection. Primates vaccinated with anthrax protective antigen protein also generate a vigorous neutralizing antibody response, which provides immune protection in the short term. Although the levels of antibody decline over time to undetectable levels within a year, the monkeys still show substantial protection when challenged with inhalation anthrax at nearly two years. As part of the CDCís Anthrax Vaccine Research Program (AVRP), Emory and Yerkes scientists are engaged in vaccination and challenge experiments to evaluate other parameters of immunity, including memory B cells, that might be providing extended protection against anthrax. In addition to investigating different aspects of immunity, the scientists also will be developing new laboratory tests that can measure and predict immunity to anthrax in vaccinated individuals. In addition, they will work on development of new therapies that can be used as post-exposure prophylaxis or anthrax therapy in exposed individuals.
  • Virus-Like Particles (VLPs) for Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Vaccine Development
Richard Compans, PhD, principal investigator
Professor and Chair of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine

Viral Hemorrhagic fevers often result in high morbidity and mortality rates, with no effective treatment currently available. Although these viruses are generally confined to certain geographic areas, the threats of their potential spread by terrorism have caused worldwide attention. Emory scientists will design novel virus-like particle (VLP) vaccines against Rift Valley Fever virus (RVFV). This virus is important because it can be aerosolized for infection of both humans and domestic livestock. Virus-like particles are produced by genetic engineering of cells in order to produce the protein components of these viruses. The proteins assemble into structures that closely resemble the infectious virus, but lack the viral genome and are therefore unable to replicate or induce disease. Because of their close similarity in structure to the viruses themselves, the VLPs represent promising vaccine candidates.

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