Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute (VGTI) have received a $12.6 million grant from the federal government to assist in efforts to better protect the elderly against West Nile virus and related diseases. The grant is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, a component of the National Institutes of Health.
West Nile virus is a seasonal epidemic that occurs throughout the summer months. Typically, the disease is carried from animals to humans by mosquitoes. As many as 20 percent of humans who are infected may display symptoms. However only less than 1 percent of those infected will become seriously ill. For serious cases, symptoms can include high fever, coma, tremors and paralysis. In some cases, the disease can cause permanent neurological impacts or be fatal.
"What's particularly concerning about this disease is the fact that serious illness is much more common in those older than 50," explained Janko Nikolich-Zugich, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the VGTI. "We have little understanding as to why this is the case. Increased knowledge about this population's susceptibility may lead us to new methods for protecting these people and also others who may become infected. In addition, lessons learned from West Nile studies will likely assist in the battle against other related Flaviviruses such as dengue virus, Japanese encephalitis virus and yellow fever virus, as well as organisms used for bioterrorism"
A combination of studies in older animals and humans will be used to determine the best possible models for future studies of the disease and the development of new human treatments and a human vaccine.
In both humans and animals, scientists will track immune system responses to West Nile. These studies will include observations of the disease's impacts on the two major components of the immune system: the innate (macrophages) and adaptive immune responses (T and B cells). Through these studies, scientists hope to determine the specific factors that increase susceptibility to West Nile virus.
"We would like to find out what in us deteriorates with age allowing the virus to have a greater ability to create serious illness," explained Nikolich-Zugich.
The scientists and their colleagues also believe the findings of this research may have commercial impacts that benefit Oregonians.
"Once we understand the mechanisms and identify therapy targets associated with innate and adaptive immunity to West Nile virus, OHSU would welcome the opportunity to partner with industry and develop therapeutic approaches for West Nile virus as well as other flaviviruses," said Arundeep Pradhan, OHSU's director of Technology and Research Collaborations.
"This grant award will accelerate the further development and eventual commercialization of a new drug candidate," said Al Ferro, Ph.D., Chairman of Virogenomics Inc. Virogenomics is an Oregon-based biotechnology company that has been working with the VGTI to develop novel therapeutics against West Nile virus with promising results.
Other VGTI scientists involved in the research are: Jay Nelson, Ph.D., director of the VGTI; Klaus Frueh, Ph.D.; Ashlee Moses, Ph.D.; Scott Wong, Ph.D.; and Mike Axthelm, Ph.D. Researchers at OHSU will also collaborate with scientists at Tulane University, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas branches in Galveston and Houston.
Janko Nikolich-Zugich, Ph.D., is a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the OHSU School of Medicine; and senior scientist at the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and the Oregon National Primate Research Center.