UNC awarded $4.8 million to test dengue fever vaccines

Thursday, October 16, 2008 — The Carolina Vaccine Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has received a $4.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create and test possible vaccines for dengue fever.

The institute will develop several potential vaccines, each using different configurations of dengue antigens and vaccine delivery vectors. UNC researchers will test the vaccines in pre-clinical trials, and the most effective candidates will be sent to researchers at the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus for further testing.

Dengue fever is a mosquito-transmitted disease, typically characterized by the rapid onset of fever and excruciating joint pain. Reactions range from mild to lethal, with about one percent of cases progressing to dengue hemorrhagic fever, with internal bleeding that can lead to shock and death.

During the past 50 years, dengue has emerged as one of the world’s main infectious diseases and a major public health threat in the tropics and subtropics. Approximately two-fifths of the world’s population is at risk of being infected with the disease and about 500,000 people are hospitalized by it annually, the majority of them children.

Laura White, Ph.D., research assistant professor in microbiology and immunology in the School of Medicine and a member of the institute, will direct the work.

“The tropical world needs a pediatric dengue vaccine to protect infants and children, who are at a higher risk of developing the more severe forms of the disease,” White said. “It’s also spreading at an alarming rate. Only nine countries reported cases of dengue fever in 1970, but today it has spread to over 100 countries.”

Dengue fever is caused by a virus which has four different serotypes, or strains. After recovery, patients develop lifelong immunity to the serotype they were infected with, but remain susceptible to the others. Also, for reasons that are currently poorly understood, people who get a second infection are more likely to develop dengue hemorrhagic fever. Therefore, an ideal vaccine would protect against all four serotypes, researchers say.

The vaccines that will be tested in Puerto Rico will be either monovalent (targeting only one dengue serotype) or tetravalent (targeting all four serotypes). A successful monovalent dengue vaccine would not provide full protection, but it would greatly improve researchers understanding of the virus and how to design a completely protective vaccine, White said.

“I’ve been interested in dengue fever since the 1990s, but few researchers were working with the virus back then,” White said. “Even five years ago when I came to UNC, there was only one other researcher working with dengue in the Triangle area. This grant will help our lab and others interested in dengue learn a lot about vaccine-induced immunity and what it will take to make a successful dengue vaccine.”

The Carolina Vaccine Institute was established in 2002 under both the UNC schools of medicine and public health. The institute’s mission involves developing safe, low-cost, effective vaccines for people in the developing world. It focuses on diseases that disproportionately afflict people in developing countries which are often overlooked by commercial vaccine companies.

For more information, visit the institute’s Web site at http://med.unc.edu/cvi.

Note: White can be reached at (919) 966-4026 or Ljwhite@med.unc.edu.

Institute contact: Jake Wiltshire, (919) 966-4026, jacob_wiltshire@med.unc.edu
School of Medicine contact: Les Lang, (919) 966-9366, llang@med.unc.edu
News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596, patric_lane@unc.edu

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