The Ferré/Marquet Vaccine Research Center at Pitzer College develops low-cost vaccines to address urgent animal health and human welfare issues in Southern Africa. Through the center, Pitzer faculty, students and local community members conduct cutting-edge bioscience research to help combat devastating diseases in developing countries.
Under the direction of Professor Larry Grill, the center’s research focuses on vaccines for diseases that can destroy herds of cattle, including Lumpy Skin Disease, East Coast Fever, Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia and Anthrax. Inexpensive vaccines for these animal diseases can counter outbreaks by creating “herd immunity,” ultimately saving countless lives in developing countries where smallholder farms provide a livelihood for nearly two billion people.
Launched in 2008, the center is the on-campus research facility of the Vaccine Development Institute (VDI), which works in partnership with the University of Botswana and the Botswana Vaccine Institute. Based on the center’s collaborative, transnational approach to research, trials on the center’s first vaccine to protect cattle from Lumpy Skin Disease began in summer 2015.
Field Research Model
Since the center opened, more than 50 students from The Claremont Colleges have worked in vaccine development labs on Pitzer’s campus and at the University of Botswana. Every summer, Grill takes up to four students to Botswana to exchange methods and findings with researchers, including Dr. Wata Mpoloka, a molecular biologist at the University of Botswana and Dr. Melvin Leteane, a virologist at the University of Botswana.
The center’s model is based on the premise that vaccines in developing countries must be inexpensive and readily replicated in the communities that need them most.
The Ferré/Marquet Vaccine Research Center uses a common, well-known plant virus, the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), which can infect plants but not humans or animals. TMV is easily contained and controlled in growth rooms and greenhouses.
Student and faculty researchers engineer the virus to display the most active antigens on its surface. This TMV system can be used to rapidly identify the immunoactive antigens found on disease-causing pathogens that trigger a robust immunological response in white blood cells. In effect, the TMV is “decorated” to look like infectious human and animal pathogens. These “decorated” plant viruses spur the immune response in inoculated humans and animals, thereby creating protective immunity.
The center plans to design vaccines that can be stored at room temperature. In developing countries without widespread refrigeration, “cold-chain” control—keeping vaccines at a constant, controlled temperature—is a huge challenge. To circumvent this problem, the center plans to produce vaccines as dried powders that can be hydrated just prior to inoculation.
Nationally and internationally, multiple vaccines and therapeutics have been produced with this method, which has been used to control Ebola in monkeys and is being tested in human clinical trials in western Africa. In addition, several vaccines in the US and Canada are in the final stages of human clinical trials.
The Pilot Project
The Vaccine Development Institute’s pilot project is engineering a low-cost vaccine against Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD). Comparable to foot-and-mouth disease, LSD debilitates and often kills cattle, causing severe nutritional and economic losses for the people of Botswana and other countries in Southern Africa.
Through the Vaccine Development Institute, approximately 50 vaccine candidates have been produced, and the top five vaccine candidates have been tested in guinea pigs. These candidates successfully produced high levels of disease-specific antibodies against the LSD virus. Clinical trials in cattle began in Botswana in July 2015.
The Vaccine Development Institute is working with commercial biotech firms to move its pilot project into large-scale production of an LSD vaccine. With sufficient funding, the institute and its partners in Botswana could have a fully-functioning production facility by 2018.