Microbiologist Karl Klose, a professor in the UTSA College of Sciences' Department of Biology and a member of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, has received a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to conduct research that would bring scholars one step closer to developing a vaccine against tularemia. The funding, from the DOD's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, is one of the largest contracts UTSA has received this year for its research in infectious disease, recognized by scholars to be among the top programs in the country.
Tularemia or rabbit fever, caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis, is highly infectious, even fatal, when introduced in the lungs. As a result, it has been developed as a bioweapon by several countries around the world.
Generally, F. tularensis is found in infected animals, such as rabbits, as well as in insects and ticks. While human infections are infrequent, those that do occur are difficult to diagnose because they are rarely seen and recognized by clinicians.
There is currently no vaccine that is approved for human use in the United States.
"Natural cases of tularemia are very rare. However the use of Francisella tularensis as a bioweapon could be devastating because it takes very little of the bacterium to cause an infection," said Klose. "This research will help us get closer to creating a vaccine for tularemia that would protect humans from its illicit use."
Over many years, Klose and his UTSA collaborators have identified a way to create a tularemia vaccine from a live bacterium that has been rendered harmless, but which protects against pulmonary tularemia infection, much like how flu vaccines work. However, this vaccine candidate needs to be refined to optimize the protection it provides against tularemia and to advance the research to translational studies. Klose will partner with Dr. Robert Sherwood at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. to conduct this research.
Klose's tularemia study is one example of the top-tier research underway in UTSA's South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. In the center, more than two dozen researchers are studying infectious diseases such as Lyme disease, chlamydia, valley fever, cholera and others. Their goal is to develop new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to reduce the threat that infectious organisms pose to humans.
"The discovery and commercialization of intellectual property at UTSA, such as a method to create a tularemia vaccine, is one of the many ways that UTSA is advancing toward Tier One status," said Floyd Wormley, associate dean for research in the UTSA College of Sciences. "These are the types of discoveries that will lead to patents and commercial licenses, which ultimately expand the top-tier opportunities UTSA faculty members have to train students and to conduct research with great benefits to society."
In 2011, the STCEID established a Center of Excellence in Infection Genomics with funding from the Department of Defense. There, UTSA faculty and students conduct research, teaching and outreach activities aligned with Army priorities.
"Over many years, UTSA has developed a strong core of infectious disease researchers who together are working to develop vaccines that will protect the public from harmful infectious diseases," said George Perry, dean of the UTSA College of Sciences. "And UTSA undergraduates and graduate students are working alongside our researchers, learning valuable skills as they prepare for their own biomedical careers. These are the kinds of programs that make our students highly competitive job candidates once they graduate."
Klose will receive one million dollars in initial funding. Option periods one and two include additional funding of $2.6 million and $1.1 million, respectively.
The Department of Defense's Defense Threat Reduction Agency safeguards America and its allies form Weapons of Mass Destruction by providing capabilities to reduce, eliminate and counter the threat, and mitigate its effects. UTSA's contract was funded through its Chemical and Biological Defense Program.