Later this year, the Center for Vaccines and Immunology will open the doors of its newly renovated research facilities. Housed in the old Veterinary Teaching Hospital space, the Center will eventually accommodate up to 10 research groups comprising 100 total faculty and staff. In addition to training future scientists, the Center’s researchers will focus on expanding their understanding of the immunology of infectious diseases and how vaccines work in different populations based upon age, gender and ethnicity.
“We want to know more about why people and animals react differently to vaccine formulations so that we can construct vaccines that work well in as many people and animals as possible,” said Ted M. Ross, PhD, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Infectious Diseases who also serves as the CVI’s director.
The CVI’s initial renovations will accommodate between four to six research groups, which will occupy the space within the first five years. The plan is to expand the facility as more funding becomes available, with the goal of ultimately housing 10 laboratories. The first phase of renovations will convert a portion of the first floor of the old VTH to roughly 15,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory space. Another 12,500 square feet of space will become available to researchers by the time the Center’s renovations are completed. The renovations are supported by the GRA, the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Office of the Provost, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Infectious Diseases.
Given the long history of vaccine research at the University of Georgia, the physical manifestation of a vaccine center seems a natural extension of work already being performed on campus. UGA professors specializing in vaccine development and immunology conceived the CVI as an interdepartmental effort to coordinate vaccine research and development at the university, form new collaborations between investigators and provide access to high-end facilities and instruments. Though the vacancy left by the teaching hospital’s recent move to its new facilities created an ideal opportunity to give the CVI a home, the CVI itself is the culmination of years of planning.
“The idea of the Center actually goes back to 2007,” explained Fred Quinn, MS, PhD, who heads the Department of Infectious Diseases and is a founding member of the CVI. “In cooperation with UGA Vice President for Research David Lee, we put in a proposal to a Board of Regents initiative for hiring seven faculty in Infectious Diseases and we won the award.” Five of the seven faculty hired are full-time or joint appointments in the CVM. One of the resulting hires was Don Harn, MS, PhD, a GRA Distinguished Investigator in Infectious Diseases who joined the CVM in March 2009. “When we were hiring Don, one of the discussion points with him was the development of some more coordinated effort toward a vaccine center,” said Quinn. With that began a nearly decade-long collaboration to garner the funding and support required to establish such a center.
The final push to make the CVI a reality came with the early 2015 hiring of Ross, who was serving as director of the vaccines and viral immunity program at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida. Ross brings with him his extensive experience in designing, developing and testing novel vaccine candidates, particularly against viral diseases. His current research and development collaboration with pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur has resulted in an experimental universal influenza vaccine, which Sanofi Associate Vice-President for Research Harry Kleanthous, PhD, announced at the World Vaccine Congress in Madrid, Spain, in November.
“You need someone to materialize the whole idea of a vaccine center, to spearhead that effort, and I think Ted Ross is the perfect person to bring this together,” said fellow CVI investigator Biao He, PhD, who is both a GRA Distinguished Investigator and the Fred C. Davison Distinguished University Chair in Veterinary Medicine.
Building a formal infrastructure for vaccine research and development promises to provide a host of new benefits for the UGA faculty and students involved. “The collaboration, the synergy, I think that’s the main thing,” said He, “but also the Center will definitely benefit our effort to have a large program project to compete more effectively with other institutions for federal and industry funding.” Negotiations are ongoing with Sanofi Pasteur to provide funding for the Center, as well as to aid in the translation of basic research performed by CVI researchers into vaccine candidates for human clinical trials.
The new lab spaces in the old teaching hospital also provide an opportunity to gather investigators focused on vaccine development and immunology under one roof. “Sometimes you can have somebody you want to work with, but they’re in a different building and they might as well be in a different country,” said Ross. “With a facility, now you have people of like minds all in the same location and you can synergize your different expertise to not only develop vaccines, but also to understand how vaccines work and to understand the host-pathogen interaction.” Providing the CVI with a home base in one central location will also facilitate the establishment of state-of-the-art core facilities, providing ready access to a range of high-end instruments from microscopes to flow cytometers. The facility will help attract new talent, too. Current plans are for five new professors to join the ranks of CVI faculty.
The CVI’s physical presence promises to advance the educational goals of the University much as its research goals. “For the Center, one of the goals is to train the next generation of scientists,” said Ross. “We want to get them involved in areas that they might not have as much opportunity to now by bringing in new faculty that have a vaccine-related or immunology-related focus and new pathogens that we don’t currently use on this campus.” The presence of an organized program and solid infrastructure for the study of vaccines also enables investigators to write a more competitive application for a training grant from the National Institutes of Health. Such a training grant would provide graduate students with funding for their stipends, research projects and travel to scientific meetings.
With the College of Veterinary Medicine as the Center’s home base, vaccine investigators will have access to unique resources unavailable to researchers at other institutions. “We have the facilities to do many things that other people cannot do,” said He. “We have animal model choices that no one else has as much access to as we do, and also the veterinary expertise—we have the people who know them, the people who are experts on them.”
Stephen Trent, PhD, the UGA Distinguished Professor of Infectious Diseases and a CVI faculty member, also highlights the wealth of animal model systems available to researchers at the College. “We can do so many animals models here, and this is the limiting factor in biomedical sciences. I haven’t been in other places where people have that available to them,” said Trent. “I think it’s amazing. There’s a lot that can be done here.”
The founding researchers of the CVI hope that, given time, the unique opportunities afforded by the Center will help to promote the infectious disease research being performed at UGA and encourage a new level of collaboration both on campus and off. “You put yourself out there and people see what you’re doing, and maybe there’s more interaction—not just within the department, or college or the university, but among institutions as well,” said He. “Maybe this will become the nucleus of much greater things.”
Writer: Tara Bracken