The University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore has received the largest grant in its history to lead a Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research (RCE). The five-year, $42 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) will be used to develop new and improved vaccines, diagnostic tools and treatments to help protect the country and world from the threat of bioterrorism and naturally occurring infectious diseases.
The Middle Atlantic RCE will pursue the development of vaccines against anthrax and smallpox, focus on emerging infectious diseases such as West Nile Virus, and study new approaches to fighting viruses that cause deadly hemorrahagic fever, including Ebola and Marburg. Other targets for RCE researchers will be highly virulent forms of E. coli and Shigella, bacteria considered to be potential bioterror agents because small amounts cause severe illness. The RCE will also design faster and simpler diagnostic tests and needle-free vaccination techniques to ensure a rapid public health response in the event of a biological attack or outbreak of infectious disease.
"This is the boldest and most innovative program that NIAID has ever undertaken," says Myron M. Levine, M.D., D.T.P.H., professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, director of the University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development (CVD), and principal investigator for the Middle Atlantic Regional Center of Excellence. "Our Regional Center of Excellence will provide an unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration to conduct wide-ranging research on infectious diseases."
As the lead institution of the Middle Atlantic Regional Center of Excellence, the University of Maryland School of Medicine will head a consortium of 16 biomedical research institutions to carry out the NIAID's strategic plan for biodefense research. Eight RCEs will be established nationwide with grants totaling approximately $350 million over five years. Each center is comprised of a lead institution and affiliated institutions located primarily in the same geographical region.
"The events of 9-11 and the anthrax attacks that followed made it clear that there are nefarious people out there," says Dr. Levine. "We have also come to realize that we are extremely vulnerable and to a great extent unprepared for biological attacks. It is critical for us to develop preventive vaccines to protect ourselves."
More than 60 scientists will be participating in the Middle Atlantic RCE as investigators, co-investigators or collaborators. There will be three scientific core facilities within the Middle Atlantic RCE. These include a Clinical Trials Core, co-directed by the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, a Primates Core at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Bioinformatics Core at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.
"Core facilities will be made available to approved investigators from academia, government, and the private sector" says Donald S. Burke, M.D., director of the Center for Immunization Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and co-principal investigator. "The Middle Atlantic RCE will also provide scientific support to first responders in the event of a national biodefense emergency."
"The University of Maryland has established itself as a national leader in homeland security and interdisciplinary research to improve biodefense," says David J. Ramsay, D.M., DPhil, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. "The RCE grant is a reflection of that commitment."
Immediately after the 9-11 attacks, the Center for Vaccine Development conducted clinical trials that proved the effectiveness of the nation's 30-year-old stockpile of smallpox vaccine. This year, the CVD began testing a new genetically engineered anthrax vaccine designed to provide immunity with fewer doses and fewer side effects. "Creating and maintaining the infrastructure to carry out biodefense research is critically important, and we plan to make full use of our resources," says Donald E. Wilson, M.D., M.A.C.P., Vice President for Medical Affairs, University of Maryland and Dean of the School of Medicine. "For example, Health Sciences Facility II, our new biomedical research building, is equipped with a biosafety containment facility which can be used to further the Regional Center's research goals."
Universities in the consortium will work closely with state, county and municipal public health authorities in the fight against bioterrorism. "The selection of the University of Maryland School of Medicine to lead homeland defense research in the mid-Atlantic region is testimony to the leadership of the State and the research expertise of the University of Maryland, Baltimore," says Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. "This Administration is committed to homeland defense and is pleased that the NIAID has recognized this commitment."
In addition to the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, the Middle Atlantic RCE includes researchers from the following institutions: The University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia, the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, West Virginia University, Drexel University, the University of Vermont, the University of Missouri, Kansas City, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, and the University of Pittsburgh.
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