Centers and Institutes

The Ferré/Marquet Vaccine Research Center at Pitzer College

The Ferré/Marquet Vaccine Research Center at Pitzer College, launched in 2008, will help develop cost-effective vaccine production and address urgent health issues in southern Africa. The Center gathers faculty, students and local community members who perform cutting edge bioscience research to improve healthcare in developing countries.

Wata Mpoloka, Melvin Leteane and Larry Grill

University of Botswana Virologists Wata Mpoloka and Melvin Leteane with Vaccine Development Institute Director Dr. Larry Grill

The Institute's Objectives

The Center, under the direction of Dr. Larry Grill, works with the University of Botswana to create vaccines for some of the world's most destructive viruses, including rotavirus—fatal to more than 500,000 children under age five each year—and lumpy skin disease, which can destroy entire herds of cattle.

Work at the Center began in the summer of 2009, when an inaugural class of Vaccine Center students accompanied Grill to Botswana and began the vaccine production process. Joining them was Dr. Wata Mpoloka, a molecular biologist at the University of Botswana, who also earned a Fulbright Fellowship to continue this work at Pitzer College. In summer 2010, the second class of Center students will work in the lab in Botswana, including Matthew Ward '11, who says he hopes to gain vital experience in the field and to work in Africa again.

Dr. Larry Grill, the director of the Vaccine Development Institute, has joined with Pitzer College to work on this nonprofit, collaborative project to develop effective vaccines that can be produced by the countries that need them. Led by virologists Melvin Leteane and Wata Mpoloka, UB faculty, staff and students, in consultation with the Botswanan Ministry of Health, will develop a list of vaccines, prioritized for development purposes.

green fluorescent protein

The left side of the plant above is lighted by regular light, while the plant on the right is shown under ultraviolet light. Under the UV light conditions, one can see the “green fluorescent protein” (normally found in jellyfish) which has been inserted into the plant using the technology that will eventually be used to produce animal and human vaccines.

The Method

The technology that the Vaccine Research Center will use is based on using a common, well-known plant virus, the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), which does not cause disease in non-plant species. This plant virus is only infectious for a few solanaceous plant species and is easily contained and controlled when grown in outdoor environments, as has been shown in outdoor productions done in Kentucky, North Carolina and Florida since 1991. As such, this technology is safe for use around the world. Grill himself has been involved with developing TMV as a protein and peptide production system for the last twenty years.

The program's key component is to use the TMV system to rapidly identify immunoactive antigens for disease-causing human and animal pathogens, using technology that has already been developed. Subsequently, the TMV will be engineered to display the most active antigens on the surface of the plant virus. In effect, the TMV will be “decorated” to look like the infectious human and animal pathogens, while not being infectious, and these “decorated” plant viruses will trigger the animal and human immune response that will lead to protective immunity. Already multiple vaccines have been produced that have shown efficacy in clinical trials using the TMV-based system.

In addition to their ability to be produced rapidly and inexpensively, another benefit of these vaccines is that they will likely be able to be stored at room temperature as a dried powder that can be hydrated just prior to inoculation, making the “cold-chain” control of the vaccine, less of a concern.

The Pilot Project

As an initial pilot project, the Institute is developing a production system for a vaccine against Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD), which causes a chronic debility in cattle comparable to foot-and-mouth disease and leads to serious nutritional and economic losses because of the high morbidity rate following outbreaks. Currently, there is no specific antiviral treatment available for LSD-infected cattle. This disease has decimated cattle in large numbers in Botswana and other countries in Africa. The Institute's goal is to develop a rapid system to identify the immunoactive antigens that are critical for a vaccine against the LSD and then use these to make the inexpensive vaccine.

During the summer of 2008 under Grill's direction, Leteane and Mpoloka partnered with Claremont Colleges students to begin familiarizing themselves with TMV's capabilities. To illustrate the first stage of the genetic manipulation process they “decorated” the cells with a fluorescent protein found in jellyfish. Within two days of inoculation the plants started exhibiting bright green, glowing spots that indicated the protein had made its way through the plants' systems. What this exercise demonstrates is that the same procedure can be used to rapidly transport vaccine proteins throughout the system ultimately leading to an exhibited immune responsive.

Since the correct genetic sequence with which to “decorate” the TMV and effectively combat Lumpy Skin Disease is yet to be determined, Grill, Leteane, Mpoloka and participating students will begin testing sequences until they pinpoint the exact protein.

About the Vaccine Center Founding Donors

A gift from Dr. Francois Ferré and Dr. Magda Marquet, parents of Alexandre Ferré '11, founded the Vaccine Research Center at Pitzer College. Ferré and Marquet are pioneers in plasmid DNA production and gene quantification.

Founders and co-CEOs of AltheaDx, Inc. and Althea Technologies, Ferré holds a PhD in molecular oncology from the Pasteur Institute, and Marquet has a PhD in biochemical engineering. Ferré has more than 20 years of experience in cancer research and HIV clinical development, and Marquet has worked in biopharmaceutical development for more than 20 years.