PROVIDENCE — Dr. Annie De Groot and her colleagues think they have a better way of speeding the development of vaccines against Lyme disease, hepatitis and stomach cancer.
The federal government apparently believes their ideas are worth a $13-million investment.
The University of Rhode Island, where De Groot works, announced Tuesday it will receive a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to throw new resources at De Groot’s vision of using computer software to design lean, mean, more potent vaccines, and then use a faster process for testing their effectiveness in humans.
“The objective, actually, is to get some of this basic research into the clinic, to go from 20 years for making a vaccine to, perhaps, 5. And that’s why I love it,” she said. “The whole idea is to get people out of the laboratories and, instead of focusing on their models in mice, actually getting vaccines into people.”
The grant will also pay for training researchers in the novel techniques to encourage the development of vaccines against tropical diseases in developing countries.
She called the NIH award “a dream come true” because it will provide “a team of researchers — based right here in Rhode Island — with the exciting opportunity to collaborate across disciplines and to teach the next generation of scientists to use tools that are accelerating the development of vaccines” and drugs.
At least 10 people will be hired to help do the work.
The funds will go to De Groot and several other researchers at URI and Lifespan, which owns Rhode Island Hospital.
At URI’s main campus in South Kingstown, Thomas Mather will be trying to fine-tune a vaccine that will protect people against Lyme disease and other tick-transmitted illnesses, not by directly vaccinating them against those diseases but by sensitizing the immune system to attack tick saliva.
The hope is that if the body can be sensitized to tick saliva, it will block the nasty bugs that come with it.
That’s one reason why guinea pigs don’t get Lyme disease, De Groot said.
In Providence, researchers Lenny Moise of URI and Steve Moss of Lifespan will be developing a vaccine against Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium responsible for most ulcers. It also increases the risk of stomach cancer.
Steve Gregory of Lifespan will use the money to continue working on a vaccine against the potentially deadly liver disease hepatitis C.
De Groot herself will be developing a multi-purpose vaccine against a group of microorganisms you’ve probably never heard of and definitely wouldn’t want to meet — some “really nasty pathogens that could be use used as bio-warfare agents.”
“Soldiers need this because you never know what concoction someone will come up with,” she said.
Their new method of developing vaccines relies heavily on a computer analysis of the DNA that bacteria and virus use to build the proteins that allow them to function.
“The way they used to make vaccines was shake and bake,” the researcher said. “They would take the bacteria, they would grow it up, they would bake it [to kill it], then they would give you the shot. Everything goes in. That’s not necessary.”
Instead, their “vaccine design toolkit” uses a computer program to predict which proteins in the genetic code will most easily trigger the body’s immune system. The toolkit has been in development for a decade.
“The small pieces can then be tested with human cells [to see if] it would be good for a vaccine,” she said.
The next step is testing in mice that have been genetically engineered to have a human, not rodent, immune system.
If human immune cells attack the virus or bacteria after inoculation, the vaccine can go on to human testing.
This is the second major NIH grant URI has received in recent months. In May, it was awarded an $18-million five-year grant for research into cell biology, molecular toxicology and behavioral science.