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UCI virologists awarded $3 million to study tularemia-causing bioterrorism agent

Researchers hope to find a vaccine against the disease

Irvine, Calif. , February 18, 2004

UC Irvine researchers Luis Villarreal and Philip Felgner have been awarded $3 million by the National Institutes of Health to study proteins from a highly infectious, tularemia-causing bacteria. The bacteria is so infectious that even 10-50 organisms can cause disease in humans. It also has the potential to be used in biological warfare if distributed in aerosol form.

Tularemia, also known as “rabbit fever,” is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis found in animals such as rodents, rabbits and hares. The bacterium can cause pneumonia in people, chest pain and respiratory problems. The disease is difficult to treat, requiring extremely high doses of antibiotics administered over several months.

As a biological warfare agent, it has been estimated that 50 kilograms of the bacteria distributed by air over a population of 2.5 million people would result in 250,000 cases of tularemia with 19,000 deaths. The demand for large quantities of antibiotics could deplete the national supply.

“The bacterium is classified as a ‘category A’ bioterrorism agent because of its ability to harm or kill large numbers of people if the victims are not treated promptly,” said Villarreal, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry and the director of the Center for Virus Research at UC Irvine. “Our research team will be looking at all the bacteria’s proteins in order to identify the ones that will be useful for vaccines.”

Felgner, principal investigator on the grant and director of the Proteomics Facility within CVR, said, “At present, a vaccine that would be an effective means to counteract the threat of F. tularensis does not exist. We expect the outcome of our research will be such a vaccine.”

The novel approach being applied in Felgner’s laboratory is to synthesize and purify each of the 2,000 individual proteins that make up the bacterium. With these proteins in hand, the researchers can make a microarray chip to analyze in great detail the immune responses from people and animals infected with the disease.

“We believe this kind of rapid and detailed analysis of the immune response against this infectious agent will lead us to the most effective vaccine against this bioterror threat,” Felgner said.

The proteins are made by a special process developed at UC Irvine called “PCR Express,” which uses the DNA Polymerase Chain Reaction to activate genes so that very large numbers of different proteins can be rapidly synthesized. The $3 million grant will be used to make the proteins and put them on microarray chips. In addition, the grant supports studies to test new vaccines, which will be conducted at the special containment facilities of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories site in Porton Down, England.

The UCI researchers will also collaborate with the laboratory of Dr. Richard Titball of DSTL. Approximately two-thirds of the research will be done at UCI, the remainder in the United Kingdom.

About the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory: DSTL is the center of scientific excellence for the UK Ministry of Defence, housing one of the largest groups of scientists and engineers in public service in the United Kingdom. With a work force of 3,000 people, DSTL delivers defense research, specialist technical services and the ability to track global technological developments. For more information visit:

About the University of California, Irvine: The University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked public university dedicated to research, scholarship and community. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,300 faculty members. The third-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3 billion.


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