New Funding Aids Search for Vaccine Adjuvants

BALTIMORE — Robert K. Ernst, PhD, a professor and vice chair of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry’s (UMSOD) Department of Microbial Pathogenesis and an adjunct professor in the School of Medicine, has been awarded $6.4 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to develop and test new adjuvants for use in future vaccines. According to NIAID, an adjuvant is added to a vaccine to “enhance its ability to induce protection against infection.”

Ernst will lead a team of UMSOD researchers in collaborating with researchers at the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy and two industry consultants with backgrounds in adjuvant development.

Using bacterial enzymatic combinatorial chemistry, Ernst’s UMSOD team has produced a number of potential adjuvants that will be evaluated with protein antigens from Y pestis, the causative agent of the plague, and Shigella, which causes shigellosis. The new adjuvants will be evaluated for antigen- and dose-sparing capabilities, which could result in decreased cost and improved compliance.

“High-efficacy adjuvants, when formulated in component vaccines, can be used to combat the global health burden of a wide range of human pathogens,” says Ernst. “For novel vaccines to be developed, it is critical that high-quality antigenic targets are identified and used in combination with current or novel adjuvants to increase their immunogenic capacities, such as decreasing the amount of antigen or number of doses required to elicit a long-term protective immune response.”

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