August 20, 2012
By: Cathleen F. Crowley
Source: Times Union
ALBANY — Scientists at Albany Medical College received a five-year,
$10.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a
vaccine against a dangerous bioterror weapon.
The award, which is the largest in the college's history, brings the
total grant funding for tularemia research at the school to $27.8
million since researchers there began studying the bacteria in 2002.
Tularemia is caused by a naturally occurring bacteria (tularensis) that can be weaponized.
The project has grown so much that the college is building a new
biosafety lab to accommodate the research. The new lab will be three
times larger than the old one.
"Quite a few people are working on this project," said Dennis
Metzger, professor and director of the college's Center for Immunology
& Microbial Disease.
The work involves 24 scientists including nine professor-level
researchers. Six more scientists will be hired to help with the
research, Metzger said. The researchers also collaborate with New York
Medical College and the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale
Science and Engineering.
Tularensis bacteria can be found in soil and water and can be
transmitted to humans via rodents (earning the nickname "rabbit fever").
This non-airborne form of tularemia is not life-threatening and can be
treated with antibiotics. However, if inhaled, the bacteria can be
Respiratory tularemia is considered a category A (the highest)
bio-threat by the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases because a very small number of bacteria, 10 to 15 organisms,
can be fatal and can be disseminated fairly easily as an aerosol,
Metzger said. During the Cold War, stockpiles of the bacteria were kept
by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
There is no vaccine for respiratory tularemia.
"When we started out, there were maybe three or four labs in the
country studying this pathogen," Metzger said. "We didn't know very much
about how it caused disease or how to prevent the disease from
developing. In the intervening years, we've learned a lot about the
disease process and how we may protect (from it). We feel confident now
that we can develop a vaccine against the strain of bacteria that is the
Unlike with other respiratory infections, the human lungs do not fight tularemia.
"Our body seems to essentially have no defense against it," Metzger
said. "That's a real challenge. If you don't have any natural defense,
trying to induce a natural defense in the lung is very challenging."
The vaccine Albany Medical College researchers are creating targets
the immune cells that initiate protective responses and induce local
immunity in the lung. It is an inhaled vaccine that includes dead
tularensis and antibodies.
So far, it has been successful in mice. The new grant will allow the
lab to better understand how the vaccine works and develop a version
that may eventually be tested in humans.