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VUMC joins national effort to block global pandemics of potentially lethal viruses

by Jan. 11, 2018, 9:12 AM

Members of VUMC’s Pandemic Protection team include, from left, Pavlo Gilchuk, PhD, Cinque Soto, PhD, Merissa Mayo, director James Crowe Jr., MD, Robin Bombardi, MS, Thomas Voss, PhD, Robert Carnahan, PhD, and Megan Leksell. (photo by Steve Green)

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has signed a five-year cooperative agreement worth up to $28 million with Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) to develop methods for preventing the global spread of viruses like chikungunya and Zika.

The goal of DARPA’s Pandemic Protection Platform (P3) program is to develop protective antibody treatments that can be rushed to healthcare providers around the world within 60 days after the outbreak of viral disease. VUMC’s is one of four cooperative agreements to be implemented under the program.

“We need to be able to move at this speed considering how quickly outbreaks can get out of control,” Col. Matthew Hepburn, MD, DARPA’s P3 program manager, said in a statement when the program was first announced. “The technology needs to work on any viral disease, whether it’s one humans have faced before or not.”

Principal investigator of the VUMC agreement is James Crowe Jr., MD, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center and the Ann Scott Carell Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

“Our group was excited to be selected for this program, as we have been building innovative technologies for rapid response to emerging infections for years,” Crowe said. “The goal of delivering human therapeutics in 60 days is very ambitious, but we think we can achieve this mark with our interdisciplinary dream team.”

Crowe’s lab has isolated human monoclonal antibodies for many pathogenic viruses and he has pioneered the rational design of neutralizing antibody treatments and vaccines, some of which have progressed to clinical trials.

Under the terms of the DARPA agreement, Crowe and colleagues throughout the country will develop “a fully integrated pipeline for ultra-rapid discovery of pathogens, their protective antigens, and development of fully human (antibody) therapeutics.”

Given the recent outbreaks of chikungunya, Ebola, Zika and the H1N1 influenza virus, “it is likely we are going to continually face major outbreaks of infectious disease with pandemic potential,” the agreement states.

However, current medical countermeasures take months to develop and distribute. The P3 program aims to cut that response time to weeks.

“Developing an integrated pipeline technology for identifying ultrapotent human antibodies and accomplishing rapid delivery … could revolutionize how antiviral interventions are conducted,” the agreement states.

Others participating in VUMC’s P3 team are Michael Diamond, MD, PhD, at Washington University in St. Louis, Galit Alter, PhD, at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, and a team at the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle led by Steve Reed, PhD.

The cooperative agreement with VUMC includes $2.5 million paid in 2017 for the purchase of powerful instruments for single-cell biology and next-generation gene sequencing experiments. If the research is successful, between $6 million and $7 million will be provided during each of the next four years.

“If we’re successful,” Hepburn said, “DARPA could take viral infectious disease outbreaks off the table as a threat to U.S. troops and as a driver of global instability.”

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