Researchers land nearly $7 million grant to boost effectiveness, safety of vaccines

Boosting the effectiveness and safety of vaccines that treat infectious diseases is the goal of a new, five-year, $6.85 million research contract awarded recently to KU.

The contract is with the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease and is one of six awarded to universities around the country for similar research.

Researcher Sunil David is leading the project at KU, along with Apurba Dutta. Both are associate professors of medicinal chemistry. Their team hopes to find ways of making existing and future vaccines more potent but with fewer side effects. To do that, they are looking for specific chemical agents — called adjuvants — that trigger responses in the human immune system when added to a vaccine.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration restricts the use of adjuvants in vaccines because researchers don’t fully understand why they work and what side effects could result. The immune system can overreact, for example, and cause inflammation or an autoimmune disease. Only one vaccine adjuvant is now approved for use by the FDA.

“The search for additional effective adjuvants is important and timely,” said David. “Taking smaller doses of a vaccine allows patients to develop immunity to a pathogen more effectively while stretching the vaccine supply further. That gives more people greater access to potentially lifesaving vaccines.”

The KU research team will synthesize libraries of molecules that target specific receptors. These molecules will then be examined carefully to see how they affect the immune system and whether they cause inflammation. Finally, selected molecules will be tested in experimental vaccines.

The new NIH contract builds on work David and others at KU are already doing. Much of the work is being done at KU’s Multidisciplinary Research Building, but team members with specific skills are drawn from departments across campus. Successful new adjuvants could be marketed in the future, benefiting KU and patients around the world.

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Bill Steele, program assistant, Office of Professional Military and Graduate Education
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