OHSU, WUSM, NTI To Develop New West Nile Vaccine As Another Virus Season Approaches

05/26/09  Portland, Ore.

At a Glance

  • OHSU is developing a vaccine for West Nile Virus that could reach human clinical trials within 3 years. To date, there is no existing approved human vaccine for West Nile.
  • The West Nile Virus vaccine will be created through an exciting new approach to vaccine design that can be used to develop other new and more effective vaccines. 
  • West Nile Virus (WNV) continues to expand in the number of cases each year. In 2007, there were 3,630 confirmed cases in the United States and 124 deaths, an increase of more than tenfold over an 8-year period. Between 1999 and 2008, 28,961 cases were confirmed and associated with 1,131 deaths.  This may be only the tip of the iceberg since data gathered from blood bank screenings suggests that more than 700,000 cases of WNV may go unreported each year.
PORTLAND, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis and Najít Technologies, Inc. (NTI) have received federal funding to develop a vaccine for West Nile Virus that will likely be ready to enter clinical trials within the next 3 years. To date, there is no existing human vaccine for West Nile. Funding for the research – a $7.3 million grant – comes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a component of the National Institutes of Health.

"This grant shows the solid commitment of the NIH to improving human health through the development of new and improved vaccines," said Mark Slifka, Ph.D., an associate scientist at OHSU's Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute. "We are honored to be given the opportunity to work with the NIH to develop this vaccine against West Nile virus."

Researchers at OHSU are working together with Michael Diamond, M.D., Ph.D., a world-renowned expert on West Nile virus immunology and pathogenesis at Washington University in St Louis and with Najít Technologies, Inc. (NTI), an OHSU spin-off company based here in Portland.  NTI will serve as the researchers' industry partner and will produce clinical-grade vaccine and carry it through to Phase I clinical trials.

"The West Nile vaccine platform is highly promising, especially for immunizing those at greatest risk," said Dr. Diamond.  "Moreover, if successful, we envision analogous vaccine development for other globally relevant and related viruses, including Dengue, Yellow fever, and Japanese encephalitis viruses."

Slifka has high hopes and high expectations for this new vaccine.

"West Nile virus preferentially attacks vulnerable populations including the elderly and people with weakened immune systems so vaccine safety is our number one priority," said Slifka.

Slifka believes that the combination of high safety and high effectiveness will bring their vaccine development platform to the forefront of the industry.  The approach is simple, explains Slifka.  "When we get infected with a virus, there are cells in our body that produce chemicals that quickly inactivate the invading pathogen but without needlessly destroying it.  One of the chemicals involved with this process is hydrogen peroxide and this is the key component of our new vaccine platform.  In other words, we kill microbes using one of the same techniques that Mother Nature uses and then we bottle it up to make our vaccine."

Previous vaccine development methods have relied mainly on the use of formaldehyde to disable viruses so that they could be used to train the human immune system through vaccination. However, these vaccines are thought to be less effective because the overly destructive nature of the formaldehyde inactivation process reduces the potency of the vaccine. In fact, testing by the Slifka lab indicates that peroxide-based vaccines may induce immunity that can be as much as 10 times higher than immunity acquired through natural infection – a gold standard that is expected to achieve the highest levels of protection.

"Clearly, new safe approaches to vaccine development that promote robust and protective immune responses are a priority against emerging viral diseases," added Dr. Diamond.

"The awarding of this grant is a wonderful vote of confidence in our platform Hydrovax™ technology," said John Fitchen, M.D., Chief Executive Officer at NTI.  "Hydrovax-WNV will be the first of a series of vaccines that we plan to develop against a broad range of infectious diseases of global importance, possibly even exotic strains of flu."

"This is an exciting and highly collaborative project", said Dan Dorsa, Ph.D., Vice President for Research at OHSU.  "We are pleased to be invited to play a leading role in the development of this promising new technology.  It is an important achievement for OHSU and the Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute that is substantially enhanced by the involvement of Washington University and NTI."

In addition to the development of a vaccine, OHSU's Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute is investigating other aspects of West Nile Virus. This virus primarily causes disease in people over 60 yrs of age and VGTI Scientists have identified some defects in the aged immune system that might play a role in protection to boost the effects of a vaccine.

About West Nile Virus

West Nile Virus is a seasonal infectious disease that is spread mainly through mosquito bites resulting in infections that peak during the warmer months of the year. West Nile is considered to be a significant threat to human health because each season the number of reported cases continues to increase. To illustrate: In 1999 there were 62 reported cases of West Nile in the United States and 7 deaths. Eight years later in 2007, there were 3,630 confirmed cases in the United States and 124 deaths. Between 1999 and 2008, 28,961 cases were confirmed and associated with 1,131 deaths.   However, the extent of the disease may be even higher than these figures suggest. Blood bank screening in 2003 suggests that there may have been as many as 730,000 undiagnosed cases of WNV in that year alone.

Those infected may witness minor to severe illness and in less than 1 percent of cases, infection can lead to death. In the elderly, the mortality rate can reach as high as 35 percent.     

About VGTI

Located on the West Campus of OHSU, the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute was established in March 2001. The overall mission of the VGTI is to respond to the increasingly serious infectious disease threats facing the people of Oregon, the United States and the world as a whole, including AIDS, chronic viral infection-associated diseases, newly emerging viral diseases, and infectious diseases of the elderly. Vaccine development and the development of novel immune and gene therapeutic approaches to these diseases are the major priorities of the faculty.

About OHSU

Oregon Health & Science University is the state's only health and research university and Oregon's only academic health center. OHSU is 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 patients from every corner of the state, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,400 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to every county in the state.

About WUSM

Washington University School of Medicine's 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

About NTI

Founded in 2004, NTI (www.najittech.com) is dedicated to the development of safe and effective vaccines against emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Through use of its proprietary Hydrovax technology, the goal of the company is to develop new vaccines and to replace live vaccines that have unsatisfactory safety profiles with modern vaccines that possess attributes of exceptionally high safety and efficacy.