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Published July 17, 2012, 11:30 PM

Fargo biotech firm gets $100K grant for hantavirus vaccine research

FARGO – DNA vaccines and duck eggs might help protect people against a rare but deadly virus spread by rodents.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

FARGO – DNA vaccines and duck eggs might help protect people against a rare but deadly virus spread by rodents.

The hantavirus attacks the linings in blood vessels, killing four of every 10 people infected. Victims essentially drown in fluids that accumulate in the lungs.

Researchers have developed a candidate DNA vaccine to protect against hantaviruses that cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, or HPS. The vaccine has proven effective in animals, including monkeys, rabbits and hamsters.

Aldevron, a Fargo biotechnology firm, is part of a $3.2 million collaboration that is working to test the DNA vaccine in people. The initiative is led by Jay Hooper, chief of the molecular virology branch of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md.

Hooper was in Fargo on Tuesday to meet with Aldevron, which received a $100,000 grant from the Department of Defense toward a related project. The research involves using the HPS DNA vaccines to produce neutralizing antibodies in duck eggs to replace the need to use a very limited supply of antibodies derived from people, said Michael Chambers, chief executive of Aldevron.

That would enable faster production of protective antibodies on a large scale. Hantavirus first came to the West’s attention when 3,000 U.S. soldiers became infected during the Korean War by a variant of the virus that attacks the kidneys.

“Nobody knew what it was,” Hooper said. “It scared a lot of people.”

The strains in North and South America primarily attack the lungs. More than 500 cases have been reported in the United States, including 12 in North Dakota and 16 in South Dakota – most recently on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota.

Animals given antibodies demonstrated the effectiveness of the DNA vaccine, and researchers are working toward clinical trials to test the results in people.

“We think they’re safe,” Hooper said of the candidate DNA hantavirus vaccines. “The big question is effectiveness. They are effective in animals. We need to translate that into humans.”

A novel feature of the vaccine research is the planned use of a needle-free injection by a device made by PharmaJet. The device injects liquid under high pressure. Human trials could begin in three or four years, a timeline Hooper and his partners are trying to shorten under a five-year grant.

If all goes well, a human vaccine could be developed in perhaps seven to 10 years, Hooper said. So far, a handful of DNA vaccines have been approved for animals, including protection against West Nile virus for horses, but no DNA vaccines have been approved for people, he said.

Aldevron will be making the antibodies for the research project. The firm would be interested in making the DNA and antibodies if the vaccine is proven effective and developed for manufacture.

Hooper’s lab is one of about 1,000 labs around the world that use Aldevron, which does custom work to the researchers’ specifications with DNA plasmid.

“For us this has been a great collaboration and it’s been on multiple projects that all overlap and intertwine,” Hooper said of his lab’s work with Aldevron and other partners.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522