VGTI Awarded $10 Million to Develop Vaccination Methods

07/14/04    Portland, Ore.

Research sponsored by the National Institute on Aging will focus on seniors and children

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University have been awarded a $10 million program grant to investigate methods for vaccinating those most susceptible to biological attacks or natural diseases. The five-year study, led by investigators at the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute, will investigate vaccination methods to improve disease protection for seniors and infants, groups that, on-average, have weaker immune systems than the rest of society. Funding is provided by the National Institute on Aging, a component of the National Institutes of Health.

"When it comes to bioterrorism, protection of sensitive, vulnerable populations is a major challenge," explained Janko Nikolich-Zugich, M.D., Ph.D., director of this research program and a professor and senior scientist at both the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and the Oregon National Primate Research Center of OHSU. "Currently, many vaccines are not recommended for children in their first 12 months or those over the age of 65. However, regardless of whether there is a biological attack in the country's future or not, this research is critically important. Seniors and young children are at a significantly higher risk than the rest of the country when it comes to infectious disease. Because of their weakened immune systems, they cannot be vaccinated against many of the pathogens that threaten us and can be spread naturally or purposefully. Through this study we will use smallpox vaccination to gain a better understanding of the immune systems for these groups and based on this information, we will work to develop vaccination methods that will afford them protection against disease."

The research plans include several key goals:

  • To understand immune system changes that are a natural part of the aging process.
  • To develop methods for manipulating this system to better protect the most susceptible populations.
  • To gain additional immune system information that will benefit other populations including the young and healthy.

To conduct the research, scientists at OHSU will focus on a special group of aged rhesus macaque monkeys studied at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. The animals are an excellent model for human aging because like humans, monkeys undergo a weakening of their immune systems as they age. Most of the monkeys involved in the study will receive a safe, non-replicating form of smallpox vaccine.

After introducing the modified virus, scientists will then observe the immune response of these animals, including T-cell, B-cells/antibody and dendritic cell responses, thus assessing the three major components of this system. In addition, researchers will track the role of genetics in the animals through gene microarray analysis, which allows scientists to determine which genes are activated by disease or vaccination, and to what degree.

"One major goal of this research is to determine the role of chronic illness," added Nikolich-Zugich. "Many of us aren't even aware that our bodies spend decades fighting chronic but relatively silent diseases such as cytomegalovirus and other herpes viruses. It's possible that over the long term, these diseases can slowly degrade the immune system so that it does not work as efficiently in old age. If this is the case, understanding that process could be very valuable in better protecting the elderly."

This programmatic effort involves leading OHSU scientists from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute, the Oregon National Primate Research Center, the Departments of Pediatrics, Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, and Pathology and the OHSU Cancer Institute, and includes Michael Axthelm, D.V.M., Ph.D.; Klaus Fruh, Ph.D.; Steven Kohama, Ph.D.; Deborah Lewinsohn, M.D. Motomi Mori, Ph.D.; Louis Picker, M.D., Ph.D.; and Mark Slifka, Ph.D.

The Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at OHSU researches viruses and other infectious agents, creating new vaccines and treatments for the elimination of human disease.

The ONPRC is a registered research institution, inspected regularly by the United States Department of Agriculture. It operates in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and has an assurance of regulatory compliance on file with the National Institutes of Health. The ONPRC also participates in the voluntary accreditation program overseen by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International.

OHSU includes the schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and science and engineering; OHSU Hospital and Doernbecher Children's Hospital; numerous primary care and specialty clinics; multiple research institutes; and several outreach and community service units.

###