The Catholic University of America

March 23, 2009

CUA Professor Receives $2.5 Million to Create Dual Plague/Anthrax Vaccine

Professor of Biology Venigalla Rao

CUA biology Professor Venigalla Rao has received confirmation of a five-year $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a single vaccine against both anthrax and pneumonic plague - two deadly infectious pathogens that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes as Category A threats for use in bioterrorism attacks on this country.

Currently there is no licensed pneumonic plague vaccine in the United States. There is an anthrax vaccine available, but it has limitations, such as a high frequency of side effects and the need for six immunizations within 18 months and yearly boosters thereafter.

One of the most innovative parts of the vaccine is that it will be designed to immunize individuals against two very different diseases, says Rao, who is chair of Catholic University's Department of Biology. A vaccine against even more than two diseases - perhaps including HIV - may be possible in the future, he adds.

The professor and his team have reason for their hopes: They will be building on NIH-funded research they carried out from 2003 to the present, which created anthrax vaccine formulations that proved effective in animals.

Both plague and anthrax could be manufactured by a hostile government and spread through the air, killing 80 to 100 percent of those infected unless they were treated with antibiotics in the first several hours or days after they contracted either disease. (Pneumonic plague has been widely reported to have been developed as a bioweapon by the former Soviet Union.)

In his research, Rao is engineering three key molecules of the plague bacterium (Yersinia pestis) and one molecule of anthrax bacterium (Bacillus anthracis) into a virus called bacteriophage T4 that is innocuous to humans and animals. This virus would be the vaccine - animals and human beings injected with it would develop antibodies that would give them immunity to these diseases.

Rao is the principal investigator for the project and oversees a team of researchers at Catholic University. His co-investigator will be Richard Borschel, chief of biothreat aerobiology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, Md., who will oversee the testing of the vaccine on brown Norway rats and rhesus monkeys.

Professor Rao and his team aim to create the dual-disease vaccine and test its efficacy on animals by 2014. It is hoped that the first phase of clinical studies on human beings will follow.

Pneumonic plague is the disease that manifested itself as bubonic plague during the Middle Ages - though an aerosol version of the disease would be far more virulent than the bubonic form, according to scientists.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in Catholic University's Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.