iCubed receives permanent center status from state

PROVIDENCE, R.I.  — February 06, 2012 – The Institute for Immunology and Informatics at the University of Rhode Island, which develops vaccines and cutting-edge computer-designed vaccines for fighting a wide range of human diseases, is expanding its focus to include research on vaccines against animal diseases as well.

Researchers at the Institute (known as iCubed), led by URI Research Professors Annie De Groot and Denice Spero, have begun to immunize trout with a test vaccine to determine whether it protects the fish against a common bacterium.

“We are interested in protecting the global food supply through the use of vaccines,” explained Spero.  “In the future, the human population will be more and more dependent on fish as a source of protein. Fish raised in aquaculture farms are raised quite close together, and when one gets sick the pathogen is easily spread and they all can die.”

Marta Gomez-Chiarri, Professor and Aquatic Pathologist at URI, says the current research could open up many avenues in terms of vaccine development. “The ability to predict which vaccines will work best through the immunoinformatics tools will really help the field of vaccine design advance more quickly,” she said.

Gomez-Chiarri praised the research as a showcase of collaborative effort between iCubed and other URI faculty including Microbiology Professor David R. Nelson.

The researchers are also studying diseases of chickens and swine, especially a swine tapeworm that can infect humans who eat pork infected with the pathogen.  The disease creates lesions on the human brain that result in a form of epilepsy, afflicting people living in many developing world countries.  Diverse strains of pig influenza are also being targeted because they are easily transferred from the animals to humans, and also affect the food supply.

The first step in the vaccine-development process is to develop biotechnology tools that are specific to each type of animal. The iVAX computer-driven toolkit maps epitopes that are predicted to generate an immune response and which can be and carefully concatenated in a ‘string of beads’ vaccine design.

“We need different tools because each animal has a different immune system,” De Groot said of her FishMatrix, PigMatrix and ChickenMatrix programs.  “The tools we use to pick the vaccine that’s going to provide the best protection against the disease has to be refined for each species.”

Changing lifestyles and demographics make the Institute’s expanded research focus all the more important.

“With increases in population densities, it is much easier for pathogens to jump from animals to humans, particularly in the developing world where people live in close proximity to their animals,” said Spero. “By vaccinating the animals we’ll also be protecting humans and creating a healthy environment for the whole community.”

Established in 2008 at the URI Feinstein Campus in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, the Institute applies cutting-edge bioinformatics tools to accelerate the development of treatments and cures for neglected tropical diseases such as dengue fever, schistosomiasis, Chagas disease and leishmaniasis, as well as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and Lyme disease.

Last week the Institute was awarded permanent status at URI by the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education.

“Our new designation means that the University and the state recognize the importance of the work that we’re doing and that they believe we provide great value, both by educating students and by bringing new vaccines to the patients that need them,” Spero concluded. “It means the university has taken notice of the work that we’re doing, and we’re quite proud to be recognized.”