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Collaboration is Infectious
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The Southwest Research Institute's Joe McDonough says researchers are developing more effective vaccines. Photo by Jim Lochhead.

By Dan R. Goddard, San Antonio Business Journal

In the war against infectious diseases, vaccines have proven to be the most effective weapon. But developing new vaccines can take many years and millions of dollars.

San Antonio has leveraged its academic and bioscience resources and is working to take a lead role in vaccine development. The University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio have joined forces with Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute to create the San Antonio Vaccine Development Center.

This cross-city collaboration is expected to promote greater excellence in vaccine research. And it could draw more attention to the Alamo City's bioscience industry.

"Our goal is to develop vaccines for threatening infectious diseases and find ways to more quickly move scientific discoveries from the laboratory to the public for the benefit of mankind," says Robert Gracy, vice president for research at UTSA. The collaboration brings together some key components, according to Gracy. "UTSA has the core of basic research in infectious diseases, and we've been collaborating with the scientists at the UT Health Science Center for years.

"The Texas Biomedical Research Institute has its Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory and the Southwest National Primate Research Center," Gracy adds. "The Southwest Research Institute has the expertise in drug delivery systems. Additionally, San Antonio has the Department of Defense, which has greatly expanded its footprint in the city. All of these institutions are involved in trying to prevent and fight infectious diseases, and the vaccine development center is designed to optimize their efforts."

Currently, the most promising development in San Antonio labs is a vaccine against Chlamydia trachomatis, the most common bacterial sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Bernard Arulanandam, UTSA professor of microbiology and immunology, says the project is a good example of how San Antonio institutions can work together.

"We're screening candidates for a vaccine and it looks very promising," Arulanandam explains. "We've demonstrated that in animal models of genital chlamydial infection, a vaccine composed of a select group of recombinant C. trachomatis antigens can successfully accelerate bacterial clearance and, importantly, preserve female reproductive function. Building on these findings, the team will closely collaborate on research directed toward development of an effective Chlamydia vaccine."

Holy grail
In 2005, UTSA formed the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases (STCEID) to support its scholars specializing in microbiology, immunology, medical mycology, virology and microbial genomic. Arulanandam is collaborating with Ashlesh Murthy, an STCEID research assistant professor, and with Guangming Zhong, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Health Science Center. They are working with Merck, a major pharmaceutical company, to develop the vaccine.

"Once we move beyond the animal models, we can use the nonhuman primates at Texas Biomed," Arulandandam says. "And then we can work with the SwRI on drug delivery. Not many cities have all these resources. The vaccine development center should help us refine the process."

Vaccine development is the holy grail of infectious disease research. Six years ago, Health Science Center microbiologists, led by Joel Baseman, chairman of the microbiology and immunology department, discovered that the Community-Acquired Respiratory Distress Syndrome (CARDS) toxin could be causing as many as 40 percent of all asthma cases, as well as other allergic airway diseases.

Similar to toxins that injure the lungs in whooping cough and diphtheria, the CARDS toxin is made by Mycoplasma pneumoniae (MPN) bacteria - germs that cause walking pneumonia. But asthma is a complex disease that seems to involve both genetic and environmental factors, Baseman says.

"About 18 million adults and 7 million children in this country suffer from asthma," Baseman says. "But now that we know what causes it, we can begin to target ways of fighting the disease, perhaps finding a drug or vaccine that might block the effects of the toxin. Currently, we are trying to identify diagnostic and therapeutic candidates for the clinical management and prevention of MPN-mediated airway diseases."

The Health Science Center's interdisciplinary research program involves microbiologists, immunologists, biochemists, adult practice physicians, pediatricians, pathologists and trauma surgeons. One research group is exploring how the CARDS toxin interacts with the respiratory epithelium, the lining of the airways, leading to abnormal lung function. Others are examining diagnostic aspects, drug discovery and vaccine candidates that will alleviate asthma and other pulmonary conditions.

"It may well go beyond asthma and allergy," Baseman says. "If we are correct, this toxin is having a huge impact on acute and chronic lung disease globally."

World-class assets
SwRI is a pioneer in new drug delivery systems. It's employing nanotechnology to better target the precise cells requiring treatment while reducing the harmful side effects of drugs.

"With vaccines, we have a long legacy of delivery systems we can use, but we're developing new systems that are 80 percent more effective at targeting the disease," says Joe McDonough, director of SwRI's microencapsulation and nanomaterials department. "With new targeting technology, we can identify the specific tissue being affected. Working with the other participants in the center as they develop new and improved formulations facilitated by SwRI's delivery systems, we may be able to produce new vaccine candidates that bring the fight to some unaddressed pathogens."

San Antonio has created a significant hub for medical research.

"We're not Boston or San Francisco," McDonough says. "But we're nipping at their heels."

Michael MacNaughton, vice president of chemistry and chemical engineering for SwRI, says that the Department of Defense is playing a greater role in San Antonio's medical research - especially in wound healing and in efforts to combat biological attacks.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority awarded a $4.4 million contract to SwRI to develop a nasal-delivery, first-line system to combat cyanide poisoning. That system could ultimately be used to treat soldiers exposed to cyanide gas on the battlefield.

UTSA has received funding from the Department of Defense to establish the Center for Infection Genomics, which researches organisms threatening the well-being of the nation's military. Texas Biomed is studying possible bioterror agents such as anthrax and Ebola. Currently, San Antonio institutions are researching vaccines against tularemia and Lassa virus, both potential bioterror threats.

"San Antonio is developing world-class institutions for finding new ways of combating diseases ... ," MacNaughton says.

BioMed SA President Ann Stevens says cooperation may be the greatest advantage of the San Antonio medical community.

"In most cities, the medical institutions are highly competitive," Stevens says. "But when other scientists come here, they always talk about how well the various institutions get along and cooperate. I see collaboration as the ‘yeast' that is enabling San Antonio to rise to higher prominence in areas where we have unique, world-class assets and people motivated to work together.

"For the past year and a half, BioMed SA has been taking a deep, strategic look at the assets of San Antonio's biomedical sector, with more than 60 leaders engaged in our comprehensive Asset Initiative," Stevens adds.

"Infectious disease is one of five areas we have identified where San Antonio has recognized strengths of national or international caliber."

The creation of the vaccine development center is but one example of how San Antonio officials are turning to collaboration to gain more ground on diseases.

MacNaughton says there is a hope among the collaborators that this center will "accelerate the commercialization of new vaccines under development by our partners."

Cory Hallam, UTSA's assistant vice president for commercialization alliances and innovation, says a high-value vaccine can generate sales in excess of $1 billion a year.

"Once the research is done, then the challenge is how to translate it into vaccines and other products that can be taken to the marketplace," Hallam explains. "Developing a new vaccine can take from five to 10 years and even longer.

"Since drug companies are cutting back on their internal research and development departments, they are looking to universities and research institutes for their new products," he adds. "San Antonio is positioning itself to take advantage of this by creating a culture of cooperation and innovation through the vaccine development center."


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