Vaccine Technology Takes Center Stage in Rochester

October 08, 1998

Scientists from around the country are gathering in Rochester this weekend to review promising new vaccine technologies and discuss the status of vaccine efforts against HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases, ulcers and other maladies. The conference is being organized by the University of Rochester, where vaccine technology is at the centerpiece of a new research institute - and whose scientists created the vaccine that has nearly wiped out one form of childhood meningitis this decade.

More than 150 physicians, public health officials and research scientists will discuss everything from recent discoveries in biotechnology to efforts to assure that as many children and adults as possible receive the ever-growing battery of vaccines available. The meeting is Oct. 9-10 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Rochester.

"It's a great time in vaccine research and development," says John Treanor, head of the University's Vaccine Evaluation Unit. "There have been a tremendous number of advances in molecular biology and in our understanding of the human immune response. We're now seeing those basic science advances spur an explosion of progress in vaccine development."

The meeting will include presentations on new vaccine technology, updates on immunization efforts against HIV, Lyme disease, Helicobacter (the bacterium that causes most stomach ulcers), and discussions on immunization strategies. Speakers include Claire Broome, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; John LaMontagne, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Tim Mosmann, director of the University's new Center for Vaccine Biology and Immunology; and George Siber, chief scientific officer at Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals, the firm that manufactures the meningitis vaccine and others.

"Preventing disease and saving lives through immunization is a top priority of governments and physicians worldwide," says Barbara Iglewski, professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and an organizer of the conference.

"The spotlight in biotechnology really is shining on vaccines, making this an opportune time for a vigorous research effort, such as the new Center for Vaccine Biology and Immunology."

At the vanguard of the renaissance in vaccine research was the creation by University scientists of a vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae b (Hib), a microbe that causes bacterial meningitis and other diseases. The bacterium used to infect about 20,000 children in the United States alone each year, killing more than 1,000 and leaving thousands of youngsters deaf, blind, paralyzed, or with mental retardation. Since approval of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration in 1990, the number of children infected has been reduced by about 98 percent - only a few hundred children each year get sick from the microbe. The vaccine is now made and sold by Wyeth-Ayerst, a division of American Home Products.

As important as the vaccine itself is the underlying technology developed by former professors David Smith and Porter Anderson and current faculty member Richard Insel. In the early 1980s, many large companies had turned away from vaccine research for a host of reasons, but Smith felt the work was so promising that he left the University and founded his own firm, Praxis Biologics Inc., to commercialize the vaccine. The vaccine became the first in 20 years to be recommended by the Food and Drug Administration for universal use in all children. Smith poured many of the profits back into research, and scientists were able to use the same technology to create a promising vaccine against the pneumococcus bacterium, the leading cause of ear infections and the remaining cases of meningitis in children. At the conference, scientists from Wyeth Lederle Vaccines, which produces the vaccine, will discuss results of recent tests.

Now vaccine research around the country is booming, and Rochester residents are among the first to benefit from new developments, because the University is one of five sites designated by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate new vaccines. Thus the research community relies on physicians from the University and the Rochester community - and their patients - to evaluate new vaccines. "Most of these studies are only possible because pediatricians in town are so cooperative and supportive. It's a tribute to this community," says Treanor.

Among the current vaccine-related research at the University:

  • Creation and testing of a vaccine against human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease and the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer. Physicians recently showed that the vaccine is safe and provokes an immune response; more testing is under way.
  • The University is one of six sites nationwide designated by the National Institutes of Health for the testing of vaccines against HIV. More than 500 people in the Rochester area have taken part in about 30 studies - more research participants for the size of the city than anywhere else in the world. The unit is currently evaluating seven vaccines.
  • Numerous basic-research projects, much like the work first carried out by Smith, Anderson and Insel. Scientists have no way of knowing beforehand which research avenues will lead to a breakthrough, so they are trying multiple approaches.
  • University physicians and their patients took part in the studies that led to last month's approval by FDA of a vaccine against rotavirus, the leading cause of childhood diarrhea. Physicians are among the nationwide leaders in the testing of a new flu vaccine, given by nasal spray, that could make the dreaded flu shot a distant memory.
  • University physician Michael Pichichero has led an effort to test in adults a version of the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine commonly given to children. Adults in nursing homes around Rochester currently are taking part in the study.

Rochester has become a national model not only in such research but also in ensuring that as many people as possible are immunized. Physician Peter Szilagyi created a program that has boosted the numbers of children in inner-city Rochester receiving vaccines by about 20 percent. Szilagyi worked closely with public health officials to create an extensive reminder and outreach program to overcome barriers such as lack of transportation, poor record-keeping by parents and doctors, and lack of communication that has resulted in nearly half of children going without necessary immunizations. "You can make the best vaccines in the world, but if you can't get them to the people who need them, they're worthless," says Szilagyi.

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