HHS funds regional biodefense research centers

Sep 5, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Health and Human Services yesterday announced $350 million in grants for eight regional centers to lead and coordinate research on defenses against bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases.

The 5-year grants are going to seven universities and one state health department, each of which will collaborate with several other institutions on biodefense research, according to the announcement by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. HHS is calling the lead institutions Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease Research, or RCEs.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) will administer the program, according to HHS. In a news release, NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, MD, said, "The new RCE program provides a coordinated and comprehensive mechanism to support the interdisciplinary research that will lead to new and improved therapies, vaccines, diagnostics and other tools to protect the citizens of our country and the world against the threat of bioterrorism and other emerging and re-emerging diseases."

The eight regional centers and their principal investigators are Duke University, Barton Haynes, MD; Harvard Medical School, Dennis Kasper, MD; the New York State Department of Health, Ian Lipkin, MD; University of Chicago, Olaf Schneewind, PhD; University of Maryland, Baltimore, Myron Levine, MD; University of Texas Medical Branch (Galveston), David Walker, MD; University of Washington, Samuel Miller, PhD; and Washington University in St. Louis, Samuel Stanley, MD.

HHS officials said each center will:

  • Support investigator-directed research
  • Train researchers and other personnel for biodefense research
  • Develop and maintain supporting resources, including equipment and personnel, for use by the RCEs and other researchers in the region
  • Emphasize the development and testing of "vaccine, therapeutic, and diagnostic concepts"
  • Make facilities available to approved investigators from academia, government, biotechnology companies, and the pharmaceutical industry
  • Provide facilities and scientific support for first responders in case of a national biodefense emergency

The announcement said research objectives and topics will include:

  • New approaches to blocking the action of anthrax, botulinum, and cholera toxins
  • New vaccines against anthrax, plague, tularemia, smallpox, and Ebola
  • New antibiotics and other treatment strategies
  • Bacterial and viral disease processes
  • New diagnostic approaches
  • The immunology of bioterrorism-related diseases
  • Computational and genomic approaches to combating disease agents
  • New immunization strategies and delivery systems

In addition to funding the eight regional centers, NIAID is providing smaller grants to the University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa for preliminary work on possible future RCEs. The grants will support "training, planning, research development, and resource acquisition that could lead to the future establishment of a regional center," the HHS statement said. The principal investigators for those efforts are Patrick Schlievert, PhD, at Minnesota and Bradley Britigan, MD, at Iowa. Minnesota is receiving a $1 million grant and Iowa is receiving $1.47 million, according to news releases from the institutions.

Each of the regional centers will collaborate with a number of other institutions, mostly in the same region. For example, the University of Chicago will work with Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, the Mayo Clinic, Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin, and eight other institutions, according to a university news release. The university is receiving a $35 million grant.

The University of Minnesota will collaborate with 14 other institutions in research on "category A" disease agents, including anthrax and tularemia, according to a news release from the university's Academic Health Center. Minnesota will serve as "co-lead institution" with Ohio State University in the effort. The other institutions include several universities, two state health departments, and private companies (Cargill and 3M).

"The planning grant will allow us to initiate research projects, train researchers, and build a team for emergency response," said Schlievert, a microbiologist. "For instance, we hope to develop new approaches to blocking the action of anthrax and tularemia, both of which affect the respiratory system and can be highly fatal."

See also:

HHS announcement

University of Chicago news release

University of Minnesota news release

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