The Emory Vaccine Center: The Next Decade
At the Emory Vaccine Center, our mission is to improve human health by conducting fundamental and clinical research that leads to the development of effective vaccines against diseases of global importance.
The Emory Vaccine Center is an epicenter of academic research and development of vaccines for both chronic and infectious diseases. With more than 250 faculty members and staff, it is the largest and most comprehensive academic vaccine research center in the world.
Our goal at the Emory Vaccine Center is to benefit people – to prevent and cure disease. That is why the center’s focus is on the continuum of vaccine research, from basic science to clinical trials to vaccine policy. We want to see what we do in the lab make a difference in – even save – people’s lives. Working in our labs in Atlanta and New Delhi, with our partners across the United States and around the world, and with the assistance of thousands of supporters and volunteers in the community, we are improving human health.
The mission of the Emory Vaccine Center (EVC) is “To improve human health by conducting fundamental and translational research leading to the development of effective vaccines and immunotherapies against diseases of global importance”. The success of the EVC is due to its comprehensive and integrated “soups to nuts” approach spanning basic research, vaccine development, clinical trials and vaccine policy. EVC faculty come from the Emory University School of Medicine, Rollins School of Public Health, Winship Cancer Institute, and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center – thus, truly representing multiple components of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center.
These are exciting times in biomedical research and the EVC is well poised to address important questions. At the core of the EVC mission is its major commitment to better define human immunology since this underpins all our discoveries, ambitions, and goals. This increased knowledge of the human immune system will also be of value to Emory’s programs in autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic neurologic and psychiatric diseases, and transplantation.
The EVC’s vision for the next decade is to focus on the following programs. The seven programs listed below (in no particular order of preference) all build upon Emory’s existing strengths and address important public health problems. Additional resources will be needed to take them to the next level, to reach their full potential and to achieve our stated goals. It is worth emphasizing that all of these programs have well defined deliverables and should appeal to potential donors.
A national priority is to develop effective vaccines and immunotherapies against lethal emerging infections such as Ebola, Lassa, SARS, MERS, etc. Emory is uniquely positioned to be a leader in this area of research given its proximity and interactions with the CDC and access to infected patients in the Serious Communicable Disease Unit at Emory University Hospital.
Immunotherapy is transforming the treatment of cancer, and PD-1 therapy is now licensed for multiple cancers. However, a significant number of cancer patients do not respond to check-point inhibitors. A currently untapped and potentially powerful strategy would be to combine check-point inhibitors with therapeutic vaccination. This would be analogous to not only releasing the brake (PD-1) but also pressing the accelerator (vaccine). Given our highly complementary strengths at the Winship Cancer Institute and the EVC, this is an ideal program for us. In particular, a major program focusing on viral-mediated cancers (HCV, HBV, HPV, EBV, KSHV, etc.) plays to our strengths, and we could quickly establish Emory as a world-leader in this important area of cancer immunotherapy.
Influenza continues to take its seasonal toll every year and there is also the threat of an emerging pandemic influenza virus strain with catastrophic public health consequences. The currently licensed vaccines only confer partial protection against seasonal influenza virus strains and minimal, if any, protection against a pandemic strain. Thus, there is a compelling need for a “universal” influenza vaccine that would confer broad protection against multiple strains by focusing immune responses on conserved regions of the virus common to all influenza strains. EVC investigators have played a leadership role in influenza research and coupled with the expertise in virology, immunology, and vaccine sciences plus an NIH funded Influenza Center there exists a strong nucleus at Emory to launch this challenging and ambitious program.
The highly effective anti-viral drugs against HIV have greatly improved the quality of life of HIV infected people but they do not fully eliminate the virus and thus people living with HIV (now over 37 million globally) will continue to take these drugs for the entire duration of their lives until a cure is found. In addition and quite shockingly, there are still nearly 2 million new HIV infections worldwide, and even here in the US, there are over 35,000 new infections annually. This is not an acceptable situation. Thus, the need for an effective HIV vaccine is as urgent now as it was in the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980’s. Developing an effective HIV vaccine is arguably the hardest challenge in vaccinology given the high variability of the virus and its ability to infect and hide in a latent form in the very T cells that would normally help defeat the infection. However, considerable progress is being made at Emory and elsewhere in overcoming these hurdles. Emory is a world-leader in the areas of HIV vaccine development and also HIV Cure with strengths at the National Yerkes Primate Center, the Emory Center for AIDS Research, and the EVC.
Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is now a significant global health problem and the development of effective vaccines against these antibiotic resistant microbes offers a potential way of addressing this critical issue. The launching of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center and the recent TBRU award to Emory provides the foundation to initiate vaccine programs against TB and other high priority bacterial pathogens. Also, the availability of an ABSL-3 facility at Yerkes for NHP TB work is a big plus.
The EVC has a strong international presence with research programs in Africa, South America, Australia, Mexico, Thailand, and India. The focus of these studies is to study infectious diseases endemic to the region. Important studies on HIV transmission are being done in Rwanda-Zambia and there are vaccine-related programs on malaria in Brazil, and on dengue in India and Thailand. With the introduction of new dengue and malaria vaccines in several of these regions there is now an opportunity to study immune responses induced by these candidate vaccines and to define the correlates of protection in humans. Defining the correlates of protective immunity would be a significant contribution in the development of vaccines against malaria and dengue.
Vaccines are the most cost-effective means of preventing infectious diseases but there is now a growing threat from the anti-vaccine lobby. Because of the efforts of these anti-vaccine groups vaccination coverage has been dropping in some populations in the US and also worldwide. This has resulted in the re-emergence of childhood diseases that had long been controlled by vaccination. The EVC is actively involved in advocacy for increasing vaccination coverage of both children and adults. An additional problem is that many parts of the world lack systems to remind parents when vaccinations are due and to facilitate interactions with health-care providers so vaccines can be administered. We are currently in discussion with Avaya Incorporated to develop a pilot project in India that would use Avaya’s telecommunication system to increase awareness about the importance of vaccination and facilitate vaccine access. With strategic partnerships and planning such a program has the potential to blossom and have an impact on global vaccine use.