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SwRI leads $18 million DOD project to develop tularemia “rabbit fever” vaccine for military

February 10, 2020 — Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute received an $18 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency to develop a vaccine against tularemia, a potential biothreat caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis.

SwRI’s pharmaceutical testing laboratories will formulate UTSA’s modified bacterium for human clinical trials using intradermal injection. The goal is to develop a vaccine formulation that protects humans for up to one year from tularemia, also known as rabbit fever.

SwRI, the principal investigator organization, will assist with improving vaccine stability through chemistry manufacturing controls (CMC) and encapsulation with nanoparticles to extend the immunity with a slow release formulation.

“There is an urgent need to develop a tularemia vaccine that is safe, effective and supported by sufficient data to be approved by the FDA,” said Dr. Joe McDonough, SwRI’s director of Pharmaceuticals and Bioengineering.

The $18 million contract will expand on UTSA researcher Dr. Karl Klose’s development of Fn-igID, a genetically modified strain of Francisella novicida, a relative of the Francisella tularensis bacterium that causes tularemia. Klose and his colleagues previously demonstrated that the Fn-iglD vaccine can protect against airborne Francisella exposure in animal models.

 “This is something we discovered in our laboratory, right here in San Antonio, that is now moving one step closer to having a practical outcome of protecting humans against a biothreat,” said Dr. Klose, a professor in UTSA’s Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg College of Sciences. “It is really exciting, and we couldn’t do it without SwRI and Lovelace, who specialize in formulations, encapsulation and testing. Our close collaboration is enabling all of this to move forward.”

Tularemia is rare in humans. It is generally found in infected animals, particularly rabbits. Aerosolized Francisella is highly infectious and is classified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as a Category A biothreat agent. When introduced into the lungs, the bacterium can cause a tularemia infection, which can be potentially fatal. As a result, the bacterium has been developed as an aerosolized bioweapon, posing a threat to national security.

Klose and his research team ultimately decided to develop the vaccine from Francisella novicida, a closely related bacterium that is benign for humans.

Once SwRI and UTSA optimize the vaccine, Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute will conduct advanced testing using more complex scientific models to ensure the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.

The $18 million contract is a significant accomplishment for the Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio (VDCOSA). Founded in 2012 by UTSA, SwRI, Texas Biomedical Research Institute and UT Health San Antonio, the center leverages the strength, expertise and assets of San Antonio’s four leading research institutions to identify and develop promising vaccine candidates to promote public health.

 “This program exemplifies the progress that happens when institutions are brought together through partnerships like the Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio,” added Dr. McDonough, a VDCOSA scientific co-director. “By combining SwRI’s medical countermeasure development and formulation development experience with Dr. Klose’s and UTSA’s innovation, we will provide a much-needed solution to a critical problem.”

To learn more, visit SwRI’s Pharmaceutical Testing Laboratories and VDCOSA or contact Robert Crowe+1 210 522 4630, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.