PROVIDENCE, R.I. – February 25, 2013 – A graduate student from the University of Rhode Island’s Institute for Immunology and Informatics (iCubed) has been awarded nearly $75,000 from the National Pork Board. The grant money will be dedicated to the study of several deadly diseases prevalent in the world’s pig population.

Andres Gutierrez Nunez will use the money to expand his research on Influenza A Virus (IAV), porcine respiratory and reproductive syndrome virus (PRRSV). The project is titled “Advances in Vaccine Design: Developing A Cross-conserved Influenza Vaccine for Swine.” The research will be funded for one year.

Gutierrez, a Ph.D. graduate student from Peru, has been a research member since participating in a workshop on neglected tropical diseases in January 2011. iCubed applies cutting-edge bioinformatics tools to accelerate the development of treatments and cures for infectious diseases that affect humans, animals and fish.

In addition to Gutierrez, the research team working on the pig project is comprised of Annie De Groot, M.D., Director of iCubed and Bill Martin, Chief Information Officer of EpiVax Inc. Crystal Loving, Ph.D. and William Golde, Ph.D., both of the United States Department of Agriculture, are also part of the initiative. Dr. Loving is an expert on porcine immune responses including immunity to IAV. Dr. Golde has extensive experience in SLA binding assays, porcine immunology and foot-and-mouth disease.

The goal of the project is to implement the immunoinformatics vaccine design tools that have been extensively validated in pre-clinical studies of human vaccines to design swine vaccines. Gutierrez and the group are modifying core elements of the informatics tools and applying them to the design of vaccines against pathogens such as IAV and other pathogens affecting the pork industry. The researchers have had success with similar approaches for emerging influenza strains in humanized mouse models and hope to have the same success with pigs. The objective of the project is to identify highly antigenic T cell epitopes conserved across divergent swine IAV isolates to include them in a DNA-vaccine for heterologous protection.

One of the major obstacles for swine producers is the lack of efficacious vaccines against a variety of pathogens that cause significant economic loss for producers, and the delay that occurs between the emergence of a new virus and the development of a vaccine that protects against that virus. For swine IAV and PRRSV, protection afforded by vaccines is complicated because of the diverse number of strains currently circulating in North American swine.

Prior to joining iCubed, Gutierrez worked as a research assistant in the Laboratory of Infectious Disease at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Peru.