Georgia Vet School Receives Grant for Rabies Vaccine Research

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine a $1.18 million grant to develop rabies virus vaccines. This award is the continuation of a previous four-year $837,000 grant issued by NIAID in 2002 to initiate the study.

Zhen Fu, DVM, PhD, professor of veterinary pathology at UGA, is the principal investigator of the study, along with Ralph Tripp, PhD, GRA Eminent Scholar and professor of infectious diseases at the College of Veterinary Medicine, who will investigate the immunological aspects. Fu's study is seeking a less expensive and less invasive means of vaccinating humans and animals against the virus. The proposed vaccine will use a genetically modified form of the live virus; one that will be potent enough to establish immunity with fewer doses, yet is very safe because the genetic modification makes the virus unable to cause the disease.

"Current rabies vaccines are made from an inactivated (killed) virus," explained Fu. "Although they are effective, multiple vaccines are needed to induce protective immunity. Today's vaccines also are very expensive and require five doses for people bitten by rabid animals or animals suspected of being rabid, making it cost prohibitive for people in developing countries where rabies vaccines are needed the most."

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 55,000 human deaths, primarily in Asia and Africa, are attributed annually to rabies. As a zoonotic viral disease that attacks the central nervous system, rabies infects both wild and domestic animals, including horses. It can be transmitted through bites or, less commonly, through close contact with saliva of infected animals on open areas such as skin scratches.

"We propose to develop a live form of the vaccine by incorporation of immune stimulatory molecules into the virus genome," said Fu. "By doing so, we expect to develop a vaccine with greater potency yet reduced cost, because fewer doses will be required to establish immunity. These vaccines can also be used in domestic as well as wild animals to protect them from rabies infection."

This could potentially save millions of dollars worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the estimated public health costs associated with disease detection, prevention, and control have risen to more than $300 million annually. These costs include the vaccination of companion animals, animal control programs, maintenance of rabies laboratories, and medical costs, such as those incurred for rabies post-exposure prophylaxis. Although the cost varies, a course of rabies immune globulin and five doses of vaccine given over a four-week period typically exceeds $1,000.

"The College of Veterinary Medicine is dedicated to improving the health of animals and humans," said Dean Sheila W. Allen, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS. "That the National Institutes of Health has awarded another substantial grant for the study of rabies demonstrates their continued confidence in our researchers to find treatments and cures for diseases that affect both animals and people."

The University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, founded in 1946, is dedicated to training future veterinarians, providing services to animal owners and veterinarians, and conducting investigations to improve the health of animals as well as people. The college enrolls 96 students each fall out of more than 500 who apply. It has more than 130 faculty members.

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