Public Release: 

Dana-Farber researchers to lead collaborative smallpox studies

Grant to fund vaccine safety, human immune system research

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

BOSTON--The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced today that it has selected Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to head one of five newly established Cooperative Centers for Translational Research on Human Immunology and Biodefense.

Investigators at Dana-Farber and their colleagues from other Harvard Medical School-affiliated hospitals and the University of Massachusetts Medical School will receive a $15.1 million grant over 4 1/2 years to fund research on a safer vaccine against the smallpox virus, an agent that has raised concerns as a potential bioterror weapon.

NIAID is committing approximately $85 million to develop the Cooperative Centers, a biodefense research network that focuses on the immune system. Investigators from the Cooperative Centers will work closely on projects to improve the nation's ability to respond to a biological terror attack. The goal of the research is to develop a better understanding of how the human immune system responds to disease-causing organisms, whether they are deliberately released or naturally occurring.

The Dana-Farber grant will support studies probing the body's immune response to the virus used in the current smallpox vaccine and to other viruses that may offer safer alternatives. The current vaccine, which is credited with eradicating smallpox around the world but hasn't been in general use in the United States since the early 1970s, uses a vaccinia virus - a cousin of the smallpox virus - to prompt an immune response that protects against smallpox. Though effective, the vaccine can cause serious complications in people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer and AIDS patients, or with skin diseases such as eczema.

"The aim of our research is to understand, in precise detail, the nature of the human immune system's response to the vaccinia virus and to other related viruses that potentially could be used as vaccines," says Dana-Farber's Ellis Reinherz, M.D., who is the principal investigator of the grant and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Once we determine the mechanism by which the vaccine builds immunity and, in some cases, produces complications, we'll be in a position to develop effective alternatives that carry fewer risks."

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In addition to Reinherz, the grant's project leaders are Raphael Dolin, M.D., Dean for Academic and Clinical Programs at Harvard Medical School and the Maxwell Finland Professor of Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital; Jerome Ritz, M.D., director of the Connell O'Reilly Cell Manipulation and Gene Transfer Laboratory at Dana-Farber; Thomas Kupper, M.D., the Thomas B. Fitzpatrick Professor of Dermatology at Brigham and Women's Hospital; Elliott Kieff, M.D., Ph.D., the Harriet Ryan Albee Professor of Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital; and Raymond Welsh, Ph.D., professor of pathology and professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass.

NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health, which is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious and immune-mediated illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, illness from potential agents of bioterrorism, tuberculosis, malaria, autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is a principal teaching affiliate of the Harvard Medical School and is among the leading cancer research and care centers in the United States. It is a founding member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC), designated a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute.

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