Researchers at the University of Florida will try to develop a new vaccine for smallpox as part of a national network of research centers fighting bioterrorism and emerging diseases.
Eight Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease Research will be set up with $350-million in federal grants over the next five years, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday.
Researchers will study vaccines and treatments for smallpox, anthrax, ebola and other threats, as well as new ways to diagnose and treat SARS and other emerging diseases.
Florida is one of six universities in the Southeastern center, which will receive $45-million and be headquartered at Duke University Medical Center.
UF will receive $4-million for its research on a new smallpox vaccine, officials said. The money is set to be released this month.
"There's little doubt the vaccine being used today will be replaced," said Richard Moyer, Florida professor of molecular genetics and microbiology and a member of the Southeastern center's steering committee. "It's just too dangerous."
Moyer hopes UF's research will provide the key to a new virus.
Naturally occurring smallpox was eradicated in the mid 1970s. But officials fear that research samples of the virus could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used as a weapon. The disease is contagious, often fatal, and there is no specific treatment.
A national program aims to vaccinate about a million military personnel and civilian health workers, but that effort has been hampered because of the vaccine's side effects. So far, eight people have had heart attacks after immunizations. Three of them died, and health officials are investigating whether there is a connection to the vaccine.
The vaccine is made with a live virus, vaccinia. The injection causes a minor infection, prompting the body's immune system to react and produce antibodies to kill the vaccinia and provide immunity to smallpox.
Moyer is researching a vaccine that would work differently. He is looking for a protein that would keep the virus from entering a human cell. It would do that by blocking the receptors that allow the virus to bind to the cell.
"We would try to prevent it from entering susceptible cells in the body," Moyer said. "It's a very different strategy."
Such principles have been applied to other viruses but not to smallpox, Moyer said.
"The reason that nobody's looked is because before 9/11 nobody cared," he said.
UF researchers also are working on developing new drugs that would keep the smallpox virus from reproducing.
The other four schools in the Southeastern center are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Emory University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Vanderbilt University.
The University of South Florida also is affiliated with the project. So far, USF has not received funds, but researchers there are participating in meetings and are eligible to submit projects for future funding, Moyer said.