Nearing the mid-point of an historic five-year research project, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation announced today that it is making important strides toward developing more effective vaccines and treatments for the deadly infectious disease anthrax.
In a study involving 120 military personnel, Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., Sherry Crowe, Ph.D., and Darise Farris, Ph.D., have identified a novel strategy to improve the effectiveness and safety of a vaccine that currently carries a substantial risk of side effects and may not protect all vaccinated individuals. The OMRF researchers also are developing a new immunotherapeutic approach, which would use certain antibodies to treat the often-fatal infection.
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by a form of bacteria that occurs naturally in grazing animals. It can be transmitted to humans by inhalation, skin infection or the consumption of undercooked meat from infected animals. In October 2001, letters filled with inhalation anthrax spores killed five people and made 17 others ill.
“The letter attacks of 2001 were a tragic reminder of the threat that anthrax poses,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “OMRF’s scientists have risen to meet this challenge, and in a relatively short time, they have made real progress in finding solutions to this pressing biosecurity need.”
In the fall of 2004, OMRF received a five-year, $13.8-million grant to study the form of bacteria that causes anthrax. The grant—which OMRF won in a competition involving roughly two dozen medical research institutions from across the country—was the largest in OMRF’s history and the largest ever awarded to an Oklahoma institution for bioterrorism research.
Using blood from individuals immunized with the currently approved vaccine, Drs. James, Crowe and Farris have focused on the body’s of production of antibodies in response to anthrax vaccination. Their work has yielded insights that could help improve the vaccine for the majority of the population.
“Historically, researchers have focused on the anthrax bacteria themselves,” said Prescott. “The path that OMRF took was, instead, to study how the human immune system forms—or fails to form—immune responses to those bacteria. That non-traditional approach now is paying big dividends.”
Another key development on the project comes from Jordan Tang, Ph.D., who has created an inhibitor to stop the anthrax bacteria. And OMRF scientists also are developing models to test therapeutics prior to human trials and finding ways to predict who will experience side effects from the anthrax vaccine.
Prescott stressed that all of the research projects remain at the pre-clinical stages. “We still have much work to do,” he said. “But these discoveries will pay significant dividends for human health.”
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Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by bacteria. It comes in three forms:
- Cutaneous: the most common form, it results in skin lesions; 20% mortality without treatment
- Gastrointestinal: this infection usually begins with ingestion of meat contaminated with spores and results in acute inflammation of the intestinal tract; 25-60% mortality without treatment
- Inhalation: occurs after exposure to aerosolized spores; initial flu-like symptoms lead to acute respiratory distress with pulmonary edema and sepsis; 45-90% mortality, even with treatment
Chartered in 1946, OMRF (www.omrf.org) is one of the nation’s oldest, most respected biomedical research institutes. Dedicated to understanding and curing human disease, the nonprofit institute focuses on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease. It is home to Oklahoma’s only member of the National Academy of Sciences.