The University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Vaccine Development (CVD) received an $8.3 million award to develop and test an oral vaccine to provide a more effective and efficient means of protecting the public from potential bioterror agents, such as anthrax. The goal of the research is to create a vaccine pill that provides protection with fewer doses and fewer side effects than current vaccines, which must be injected.
"A safe and effective oral vaccine would make it easier for public health authorities to quickly vaccinate the population in the event of a bioterror attack," says James P. Nataro, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Nataro is the primary investigator for the study, which is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
The currently licensed anthrax vaccine, administered almost exclusively to military personnel, requires six doses over 18 months and an annual booster shot. Researchers hope the new approach, using a genetically engineered oral vaccine, can provide complete protection with only two doses. As with the injected vaccine, the new oral vaccine relies on a protein made by the anthrax bacterium called Protective Antigen to produce an immune response.
"An oral vaccine could be distributed through local pharmacies, so people could vaccinate themselves with a doctor's prescription," says Dr. Nataro. "Instead of lining up for a series of shots in the event of an attack, people could choose to protect themselves in advance."
Full protection is the goal, but researchers expect to achieve at least partial protection with the oral vaccine. "In a bioterror attack, having partial protection could save your life," says Dr. Nataro. "People with partial protection would have a better chance of survival until their immunity could be bolstered through vaccine injections."
While oral vaccines are available for polio and typhoid, virtually all other vaccines lose their effectiveness in the stomach before triggering an immune response. To prevent the oral anthrax vaccine from being broken down in the digestive system, the Protective Antigen gene is placed into a highly weakened, non-infectious form of salmonella bacteria, which is not susceptible to stomach acid. If the new approach works, it may be applied to other potential bioterror agents, such as botulism or plague.
Anthrax is a bacterial infection caused by the spore producing bacterium called Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax primarily affects livestock, but people can contract anthrax through an opening in the skin, by eating the meat of infected animals, or by inhaling the spores. Inhalation anthraxthe form that infected many of the victims of the 2001 anthrax attacksis highly lethal. While anthrax can be cured by prompt treatment with antibiotics, the diagnosis can be difficult to make because the symptoms mimic the flu.
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