OHSU Proposes Expanded Vaccine Research, Vaccine Development Facilities

02/13/03    Portland, Ore.

Initiatives would allow researchers to fight emerging infectious diseases spread through terrorism and natural causes

Oregon Health & Science University has proposed expanded research and construction of additional vaccine research facilities to protect Northwest residents and all Americans against emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Research conducted throughout the university and in the new facilities would be aimed at saving lives through the development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics to fight diseases that threaten human health. OHSU recently responded to three separate requests for funding issued by the National Institutes of Health to conduct the expanded research and possibly construct regional/national research facilities.

The purpose of the expansion would be to study infectious diseases - spread either through natural causes or terrorist activities - and use this information to design and develop new vaccines to protect the public. In addition, scientists would develop new ways to rapidly detect outbreaks and treat patients.

"The events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax attacks alerted the federal government that more resources are needed to fight and protect against the spread of current and future infectious disease threats," said OHSU President Peter Kohler, M.D. "With OHSU's internationally respected expertise in infectious disease, vaccine development and immunology, we believe expanding our abilities will provide both regional and national benefits."

Regional Centers of Excellence
OHSU has submitted a proposal to become one of the country's Regional Centers of Excellence (RCE) for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. This designation by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) would fund a variety of research projects aimed at protecting the public from infectious disease threats through the development of vaccines. To conduct this research, OHSU has already formed a collaboration with other research institutions including the University of Hawaii at Manoa; the University of Nevada, Reno; Oregon State University; the University of Idaho; Princeton University; and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Together these collaborators form the Pacific Rim Biodefense Center (PRBC).

"The PRBC researchers bring together a unique set of scientific expertise for our purpose. The PRBC specializes in both basic and translational research. It will concentrate on designing vaccines against microbes that our government believes may be threatening the well-being of our nation now and in the future," said Maggie So, Ph.D., co-director of the PRBC and chairwoman of molecular microbiology and immunology in the OHSU School of Medicine, where some of the research will be conducted.

"Another important part of this research venture is the application of the knowledge that is gained," added Jay Nelson, Ph.D., co-director of the PRBC and director of the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute. "The PRBC's mission includes collaboration with Northwest health officials to increase the region's ability to respond in the case of a disease outbreak stemming from bioterrorism or natural causes."

Expanded vaccine research facilities
In order to develop new vaccines, researchers would study small samples of certain infectious agent microbes. For this purpose, OHSU has applied for federal funding for possible construction of a building containing secure biosafety level 4 (BSL4) labs on OHSU's West Campus in Hillsboro. Currently the VGTI on the West Campus contains biosafety level 3 (BSL3) labs. The number of duplicative layers of safety protection categorizes biosafety levels. Hence, a BSL3 lab provides three levels of safety measures. In comparison, BSL4 labs contain an additional layer of safety for working with more threatening microbes. The building would adjoin the VGTI and contain several state-of-the-art security and health protections to ensure public safety.

"OHSU's Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute is a unique research center aimed at preventing and treating human disease," explained OHSU Provost Lesley Hallick, Ph.D. "The addition of BSL4 labs would be a natural progression for OHSU's infectious disease research."

A second facilities proposal would provide federal funding to expand OHSU's BSL3 capabilities through the construction of a second building at the West Campus. These funds would also help outfit portions of OHSU's new biomedical research building on OHSU's Marquam Hill campus.

Both the RCE designation and the additional vaccine research facilities would hold tremendous benefits for the region. Those benefits would include: Protecting health: Research aimed at saving lives through the development of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic methods to fight diseases that currently exist in our region or may surface in the near future. Preparedness: Increased preparedness for the Northwest, other regions of the United States and U.S. allies for the possibility of future terrorist attacks involving biological agents.

Economic: A major boost to the local economy with the creation of hundreds of new jobs (research assistants, technologists, support staff) and the infusion of millions of dollars for construction and operation of the facilities. Research from the center is also expected to generate spin-off business opportunities (e.g., commercialization of vaccines developed). Intellectual: Construction of the facilities will attract the best and brightest scientific minds to the region.

"We look forward to numerous conversations with Northwest residents about the benefits and need for this research and expanded facilities," added Kohler.

Infectious disease issues in the Northwest There are several infectious disease issues currently of concern to Northwest residents, including:
West Nile Virus: To date, more than 4,000 U.S. residents have been infected, and 263 have died from the virus. Following a westward migration of the disease last year, West Nile Virus now threatens Northwest residents with animal cases reported in Washington.

Tuberculosis: Tuberculosis (TB) remains the leading infectious disease cause of death in the world today. Despite a steady decline in TB cases in Oregon over the past 50 years, a recent outbreak of 17 active TB cases in Lane County illustrates that the disease continues to be a challenging public health problem.

Smallpox vaccinations: Researchers at the VGTI are studying the effectiveness of the smallpox vaccine in patients who received inoculations decades ago compared with those vaccinated more recently. This information would be useful in determining risks to the public if there is an outbreak. Vulnerable populations: Additional studies at the VGTI and in other OHSU labs are aimed at understanding and boosting the immune systems of the elderly and other populations at an increased level of susceptibility to infectious diseases such as the flu.