(COLLEGE STATION, TX)— Researchers at Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) are nearing completion of the first human Brucella vaccine aimed at combatting the Brucella bacteria that cause brucellosis, a chronic disease that causes high fever and incapacitation. If left untreated, the disease can induce neurological symptoms and cross the blood-brain barrier to inflict more damage.
Because Brucella is considered a select agent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning that it has been weaponized, the vaccine would be primarily used as a biodefense vaccine by the military. Allison Rice-Ficht, Ph.D., director of the Center for Microencapsulation and Drug Delivery at Texas A&M Health Science Center, and her team therefore have not only developed the vaccine but are also working on an improved delivery system to make the vaccine stable at room temperature and able to be taken orally. She calls it a “pocket vaccine,” and it will allow military personnel to carry capsules in their pockets for oral consumption in crisis situations.
To develop the vaccine’s military applications, Ficht received a $2.6 million grant in 2007 from the Department of Defense (DoD), specifically the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command. Since then the original grant has been renewed twice for a total of an additional $1.6 million. It will conclude this December.
“We are now addressing packaging issues so that the future ‘pocket vaccine’ will be able to be distributed at room temperature and without medical personnel,” she said.
After more than 18 months, a patent application is now pending on the vaccine. Vaccination studies in animal models are concluding, and Ficht hopes to have the vaccine in clinical human trials in the near future.
When the vaccine is ready for production, and through a joint effort between Texas A&M University, Texas A&M Health Science Center and other collaborators, INCELL Corporation in San Antonio will provide small-scale manufacturing for pilot studies. Large-scale manufacturing will be done by the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing (NCTM), the first multidisciplinary workforce education institution and biopharmaceutical manufacturing center, at Texas A&M University.
“We see this large-scale production as the future with NCTM,” said Ficht. “Such collaboration maximizes the resources of the Texas A&M System.”
Since that initial grant in 2007 Ficht has worked to leverage the DOD funding for additional aid, including a Gates Foundation grant for $100,000 in 2009 for a related research project. She will continue to contribute to ongoing projects with U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases for controlled release viral vaccines.
Since 1984, Ficht has been a faculty member of the TAMHSC College of Medicine in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine. In addition to being named a Texas A&M Regents Professor in 2004, Ficht currently serves as Associate Vice President of Research for the Texas A&M Health Science Center.