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Last Updated

09 Jun 2003

Source: Baltimore Sun, June 9, 2003


In post-9/11 world, vaccine research gains new respect

Bioterror, other scares fuel funding, technology, outside interest in science.

By Erika Niedowski, Sun Staff

Dr. Robert Edelman has long had to field questions - from his own parents - about why he's not a "real" doctor, seeing patients, prescribing medicines and curing their ills.

His response: "I'm a real doc, except you don't see what I do every day."

Edelman's lifework is vaccine research - long one of medicine's most undervalued pursuits, even though vaccines have helped conquer some of the world's worst diseases.

But now, with bioterror a household word and infectious diseases such as SARS scaring millions around the globe, the discipline is getting more respect - from the scientific community, the federal government and even Edelman's parents, who keep seeing their son quoted on television.

"All you need is one vaccine," said Edelman, 66, associate director of clinical research at the University of Maryland's Center for Vaccine Development. "You've made an impact on potentially tens of millions of people. Take that to bed with you at night."

With increased funding and new technology, vaccine research is thriving, scientists say.

"I think it's a very exciting time for vaccinology," said Dr. Regina Rabinovich, director of the infectious diseases program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Seattle-based foundation has committed more than $1 billion since 1999 to developing new vaccines and expanding access to existing ones worldwide.

"It's definitely more robust," said Dr. Myron M. Levine, a prominent vaccine researcher who heads UM's Center for Vaccine Development.

Since Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine, for smallpox, in 1796, vaccines have been some of the most successful public health interventions ever, wiping out smallpox and protecting people from scourges including polio, mumps and measles. Children in this country now receive about two dozen shots by age 6.

But vaccine research practically became a victim of its own success. Over the years, it came to be viewed as something of a scientific backwater as the epidemics that afflicted earlier generations faded into memory. Some ambitious scientists began to look elsewhere.

Yichen Lu, principal research scientist for the Harvard AIDS Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health's immunology and infectious diseases department, has heard the field degraded by prominent scientists. "They think that doing vaccine research doesn't require a lot of brain power," he said. "My point of view is that, 20 years after AIDS, we haven't been able to come up with a vaccine."

Tedious and expensive

Because vaccine-making is based in large part on trial and error, and there is no universal blueprint for how to do it, the process can be tedious and expensive. Scientists have had difficulty getting funding - most drug makers considered vaccines for Third World diseases such as malaria or cholera unprofitable. The work also requires a multidisciplinary team of researchers who might spend half a career or more on a single vaccine, with no guarantee of success and a high risk of failure.

The emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s was a sobering reminder that infectious disease was not a distant threat. Since then, outbreaks of Ebola, West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome and other illnesses have driven the point home.

"It's become clear over the last decade or so, or even longer, that infectious diseases are not going away," said Emilio A. Emini, head of vaccine development at Merck Research Laboratories, which recently began work on a SARS vaccine.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, the federal government has emphasized the need to develop, produce and stockpile the safest and most effective vaccines against deadly bioterror agents such as smallpox and anthrax.

Officials have earmarked more than $1 billion to that end at the National Institutes of Health alone. The Bush administration has proposed, in Project BioShield, to create a guaranteed market for those who make the vaccines.

"There's a great influx of resources, and that means there are a lot of people who are going to be working on problems related to these agents that wouldn't otherwise have been involved," said Dr. Francis A. Ennis, director of the Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Maryland institutions have benefited from the largess. In February, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health received a $30 million grant from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations to speed development of several new childhood vaccines. Last summer, UM's Center for Vaccine Development got a $22 million federal grant for new vaccines against anthrax, malaria and other diseases.

That's welcome news for researchers such as Dr. Wilbur Chen, who even before going to medical school became intrigued by the field while he was a lab technician at the Food and Drug Administration, working on vaccines against meningitis and influenza.

"For me, it's a great thing, because you're preventing disease from even happening in the first place," said Chen, 33, who is an infectious disease fellow at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He is applying to the vaccinology training program at UM's Center for Vaccine Development.

Chen likes the potential of being able to have an impact in the Third World, where infectious diseases are still a major killer. And he thinks the growing understanding of the importance of vaccine work - beyond the research bench - will only help his cause.

"Now I can talk about my desire to do vaccine research and people can identify with it," he said. "Before they were like, 'Gee, vaccines are just what you get from your pediatrician.'"

'Inelegant' science

Leaps in technology have helped dissolve the long-held impression that vaccine research is based on "inelegant" or unsophisticated science. For example, Dr. Jonas Salk was hailed as a hero in the 1950s for developing the first polio vaccine, using "killed" poliomyelitis virus. But even then, scientific rival Dr. Albert Sabin derided Salk's work as "pure kitchen chemistry."

Dr. Gary J. Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said some scientists still rely on traditional methods of vaccine development.

"But, by and large, particularly within the last five years, the sophistication of our science has really reframed the whole field," he said.

Researchers have devised novel ways of delivering vaccines, including an edible vaccine. With advances in microbiology and genetics, scientists are working on DNA-based vaccines as well as therapeutic vaccines against cancer and other diseases.

"I think it's advancement in science that validates the field more today than ever before," said Garo H. Armen, chief executive officer at Antigenics, a Massachusetts biotechnology company working on a personalized cancer vaccine using individual patients' cancerous cells.

But challenges remain. Harvard's Lu said more resources and outside interest in the field have helped - but only to a point.

"Morally speaking, it makes us feel like we're doing the right thing," he said. "It makes us realize our experience is badly needed. It's not redundant. It's not nobody's interested."

He said his last three grant applications have been turned down because the work he has proposed on an AIDS vaccine doesn't have an innovative scientific hypothesis. And private industry, he said, is still primarily interested in making a profit.

But Ennis, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, urges his colleagues to remember why they got into vaccine research in the first place.

"One of the things that the scientists have to bear in mind is to try to do the best work they can and not lose their perspective," he said, "because the resources will come and the resources will go."