OHSU Spinoff Awarded Grant to Develop Tests for Smallpox, Monkeypox

02/13/08  Portland, OR

When fully developed, the technology could help determine whether an outbreak is a natural occurrence or an act of bioterrorism

Najít Technologies Inc., an Oregon Health & Science University spinoff company has been awarded a $1.65 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop diagnostic tests that will help detect suspected bioterrorist attacks. Mark Slifka, Ph.D., an associate scientist at OHSU’s Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute and president and chief scientific officer of Najít, will work with Anne Rimoin, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, to develop rapid and accurate diagnostic tests for poxviruses, including smallpox and monkeypox.

“The unexpected importation of African monkeypox in 2003 and the associated outbreak of more than 72 reported human cases in the Midwest represented the first major poxvirus outbreak in the United States since smallpox was eradicated from this country back in 1949,” Slifka explained.  “The monkeypox outbreak reminds us that in addition to bioterrorist threats, Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with - especially when exotic diseases such as monkeypox can be spread easily by global travel.”

“Both monkeypox and smallpox are considered to be terrorist threats, and both viruses can be confused with chickenpox, a common and relatively benign herpesvirus infection that is not typically lethal and is completely unrelated to the other two viruses. Accordingly, our goal is to develop rapid, point-of-care diagnostic tests that will be capable of distinguishing smallpox and monkeypox infections from chickenpox,” Slifka explained.

The last natural case of smallpox was reported in 1977, and by 1980, it was declared extinct in nature.  Vials of the smallpox virus still remain in secure research laboratories in the United States and Russia; however, since Sept. 11, there has been concern that terrorists could obtain and release a weaponized form of smallpox.

“This federal grant provides an encouraging step forward for our SABRE (Systematic Analysis of Biologically Relevant Epitopes) diagnostics platform,” said John Fitchen, M.D., chief executive officer of Najít. “We are pleased to play a role in biodefense and to work on improving homeland security,” Fitchen continued. “The SABRE technology allows us to pinpoint the most discriminating peptide targets for developing diagnostics across a broad range of infectious diseases.  Development of better and more rapid diagnostic tests will translate directly into faster identification of potential outbreaks.  In these situations, early diagnosis is often critical for appropriate containment and clinical care of infected individuals.”

About Najít          
Najít Technologies, Inc. is developing vaccines and diagnostics for emerging/re-emerging diseases and biodefense.  The company has two proprietary technology platforms: Hydrovax*, a revolutionary new approach to producing safe, inactivated vaccines against a variety of microorganisms; and SABRE (Systematic Analysis of Biologically Relevant Epitopes), an efficient means of developing rapid, point-of-care diagnostic tests for a broad range of infectious diseases.

About OHSU
Oregon Health & Science University is the state’s only health and research university, and only academic health center. As Portland's largest employer and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government), OHSU's size contributes to its ability to provide many services and community support activities not found anywhere else in the state. It serves more than 184,000 patients, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,900 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to each county in the state.
Both OHSU and Dr. Slifka have an equity stake in Najit Technologies. Potential conflicts of interest involving OHSU investigators and OHSU start-up companies are reviewed and managed by the OHSU Conflict of Interest in Research Committee and the Integrity Program Oversight Council.