Center for Vaccine Research to Target Mosquito-Borne Viruses

Issue Date: 
July 27, 2015

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) recently received almost $4 million to study a group of related mosquito-borne viruses. The goal is to develop vaccines and therapies against the deadly diseases.

The research, which comprises five grants, will be conducted in Pitt’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, a unique, high-security facility that allows scientists to safely contain and examine potentially dangerous pathogens. 

William KlimstraWilliam Klimstra is principal investigator on three of the grants, and Kate D. Ryman is principal investigator on the remaining two. Both are associate professors of microbiology and molecular genetics at Pitt and members of the Center for Vaccine Research.

“While the number of people who get these diseases is relatively small, the severity of disease and their potential emergence in larger populations—or for use as bioweapons—drive the necessity for development of countermeasures,” Klimstra said.

Two of his grants, both from the National Institutes of Health and totaling $847,000, focus on eastern equine encephalitis virus, a rare disease found primarily in the Atlantic and Gulf states that kills about half of those it infects. One grant will fund research on a specific part of the virus’s genetic code that is largely responsible for the severity of human disease, while the other grant will fund development of a novel, live-attenuated vaccine against the virus.

Klimstra’s third grant, from the U.S. Department of Defense, is a collaboration with colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis and Oregon Health and Science University. The $1.2 million in funds will be used to develop a novel, inactivated vaccine against three strains of alphavirus, which comprises about 30 different viruses mainly transmitted by mosquitoes, including the eastern, Venezuelan, and western equine encephalitis viruses.

Kate RymanKate Ryman received $1 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to study how these three encephalitic alphaviruses and another mosquito-borne virus, Rift Valley Fever virus, enter the brain. Amy Hartman, an assistant professor at Pitt’s CVR, will lead the Rift Valley Fever Virus research. The goal is to develop ways to limit brain entry by the virus and to identify biological markers of disease severity to measure the effectiveness of the vaccines and therapeutics. This grant also involves studies with collaborators at the University of Wisconsin.

Ryman also received $725,000 from the Department of Defense and will collaborate with investigators at the Naval Medical Research Center to raise anti-Venezuelan equine encephalitis antibodies by immunizing cows that have been genetically altered to produce human antibodies. These antibodies will then be assessed for their potential use in protection against alphavirus diseases, similar to convalescent sera, which is derived from the blood of people whose immune systems successfully fought an infection.

Several of the grants have option periods that, given successful results in initial studies, will add an additional $3 million in funding.