AMC receives $10.2 million biodefense grant

Albany Medical College received a five year, $10.2 million grant on August 20 from the National Institutes of Health to fund biodefense research to target the bacterium that causes tularemia.

Francisella tularensis, the tularemia bacterium, exists naturally in water and soil and can be transferred to humans through rodents. The non-airborne form of the bacteria is treatable with antibiotics. When the bacterium is made airborne, however, it can become a deadly bioterror weapon that has no vaccine.

Dennis Metzger, a professor at AMC and the lead investigator for the project, said that the facility's laboratories are making progress toward the development of a tularemia vaccine.

"We have successfully laid the scientific groundwork that will allow us to launch an interdisciplinary research effort to develop a vaccine that can effectively protect against respiratory tularemia," Metzger said. "We aren't just trying to find a vaccine, we're trying to understand the basis for the protection we're observing. We're researching the science as well as the application."

Metzger's team is using killed bacteria in the vaccine that is treated in such a way that it targets the white blood cells of the mice. Most vaccines are given intramuscularly and protect the blood stream more than the lungs. The vaccine created by Metzger's team is administered intranasally so that it more effectively targets the lungs, which is key for a respiratory disease like airborne tularemia.

Respiratory tularemia is considered a Category A bio-threat by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases because only 10-to-15 organisms can be fatal in humans and it can be easily disseminated as an aerosol. Metzger said that his team's research determined that even one F. tularensis bacterium can kill a mouse.

"We've done work in animal models and the goal of the next funding period is to refine the methods to make them optimally protective in animals," Metzger said. "Once that occurs, we would hope to go into non-human primates and ultimately get licensing for human use. We hope to move into human trials in the next four or five years."

Metzger said that his team's vaccine approach could potentially be used against multiple Category A bio-threats.

Since 2002, AMC has won $17.6 million in grants, largely from the NIH. Researchers are engaged in projects related to finding vaccines and searching for treatments.

"We have achieved important milestones in this area, including development of a potential broad spectrum, intra-nasal treatment for pulmonary tularemia," Vincent Verdile, the dean of AMC, said. "In addition, Albany Med has taken a leadership position in the field by organizing an annual tularemia conference attended by experts in tularemia from around the world and supported by NIH funding."

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