We’re all physicians, nurses, or other professionals who enter various fields related to healthcare to help people. Some people focus on individuals, but in our situation we focus on community.Sharon Frey, M.D.
The center is one of only nine research centers in the U.S. recognized by the national institutes of health as a vaccine and treatment evaluation unit (VTEU), which studies infectious diseases and drugs, develops new or improved vaccines, and provides rapid-response capability in the event of a public health crisis.
The Center’s team is part of an elite national group of infectious disease specialists who are on the vanguard of worldwide vaccine development. Their expertise encompasses biodefense, emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika viruses, seasonal and pandemic influenza, and other viral, bacterial and parasitic infections. Work at the Center spans the full spectrum of the vaccine development process—from basic immunology research to clinical testing of candidate vaccines.
The multidisciplinary Center for Vaccine Development has conducted more than 100 studies with approximately 7,000 volunteers over the last 30 years. SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development’s contributions to the study of infectious diseases and vaccines are immeasurable. They have included the clinical development of the intranasal FluMist vaccine (the live attenuated influenza vaccine), the development of safe and effective vaccines for smallpox and other potential bioweapons, and testing of new vaccines designed to protect against pandemic influenza, tuberculosis, herpes simplex virus (HSV), hepatitis C, dengue, and other diseases.
Fueled by Community
Part of what makes the Center so remarkable is its ability to enroll large numbers of volunteers rapidly into clinical trials, and vaccinate them in a safe, effective, and quick way. This ability to respond rapidly to the needs of vaccine testing is designed to counteract emerging public health concerns. “We’re all physicians, nurses, or other professionals who enter various fields related to healthcare to help people. Some people focus on individuals, but in our situation we focus on community,” explains Sharon Frey, M.D., Clinical Director, Center for Vaccine Development.
Former Saint Louis University President, Fr. Lawrence Biondi, was an early leader in supporting the Center for Vaccine Development. In approximately 1993, he very publicly volunteered for the AIDS vaccine trial, which was critical for the infectious diseases team to demonstrate that the vaccine was not going to cause AIDS, but was instead going to prevent infection.
Support from the St. Louis community has been invaluable to the development of life-saving vaccines—as people from around the region volunteer to participate in research studies such as influenza studies at the Extended Stay Research Unit.
Working with infectious diseases is a unique challenge. You don’t know what’s going to happen next year. How can you plan for the unknown? But fortunately we now have the technology to develop vaccines more rapidly.Daniel Hoft, M.D.
The Center for Vaccine Development is led by Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., who has built his career around the study of pathogens which lead to infectious diseases. Dr. Hoft began his career with the Peace Corps as a senior malaria technician in Borneo, and realized just how much impact infectious diseases have on global health. After completing his M.D., clinical training in internal medicine and infectious diseases, and Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology, he came to Saint Louis University School of Medicine where he worked with Dr. Robert Belshe, the renowned infectious diseases specialist who started the Center at Saint Louis University School of Medicine in 1989.
Dr. Hoft’s work has advanced the understanding of the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi (also known as the “kissing bug”), the infection that causes Chagas disease, a leading cause of infectious heart disease in Latin America for which no licensed vaccines currently exist. If untreated, infection is lifelong and can be life threatening. Dr. Hoft has developed new Chagas vaccines that have proven effective in pre-clinical animal models, with the potential to be translated into new vaccines to protect humans.
In addition to Chagas disease, Dr. Hoft has advanced the fields of tuberculosis and universal influenza vaccine development. His team at the Center has also identified a potential new target for vaccines that activate a part of the immune system not previously known to be protective against tuberculosis and AIDS, as well as other diseases. Dr. Hoft’s research has examined whether mucosal vaccinations and booster vaccinations can enhance immunity induced by conventional vaccination.
Tuberculosis is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, and is a leading killer of people who are HIV-positive. Although tuberculosis is a treatable disease, cures require long-term
treatments with multiple potentially toxic drugs and drug-resistant infections are increasing worldwide, which makes the Center’s work critical for global health.
Defending the Nation
A critical part of the Center’s work is biodefense—or national preparedness. The creation of the vaccine that eradicated smallpox is considered one of the greatest medical achievements in history. In 1980, following a global campaign committed to ridding the world of smallpox, the World Health Assembly declared smallpox eradicated—thanks almost entirely to the development of the vaccine. In response to concern that smallpox virus could be used as a bioterrorist weapon against the United States, SLU was early to begin exploring the best way to use existing supplies of Dryvax smallpox vaccine to protect U.S. populations.
Before 9/11, Dr. Frey, was conducting trials to see whether the smallpox vaccine could be diluted, in an effort to make additional vaccine stockpiles. Approximately 15 million doses of Dryvax smallpox vaccine have been stored since production stopped in 1983. However, it was estimated that controlling an outbreak of smallpox disease in the United States would require 40 million doses of vaccine. Working together with the other VTEUs, clinical trials showed the existing U.S. supply of smallpox vaccine could successfully be diluted up to 10 times and retain its potency, effectively expanding the number of individuals it could protect to 150 million.
In addition to smallpox vaccine leadership, the Center’s work in bio-defense encompasses anthrax vaccines, plague vaccines, and others.
No matter how much progress is made, the journey is long when it comes to vaccine development. “Working with infectious diseases is a unique challenge,” says Dr. Hoft. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next year. How can you plan for the unknown? But fortunately we now have the technology to develop vaccines more rapidly.”
Infectious diseases often impact the most impoverished groups around the world. Research from the World Health Organization has concluded that tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS together account for nearly 18% of the disease burden in the poorest countries. Today, three-quarters of the world’s children are vaccinated against infectious diseases, including millions in low-income countries, saving upwards of three million lives a year and preventing long term illness and disability in millions more. None of it would be possible without the work of researchers and physicians at organizations like the Saint Louis University Center for Vaccine Development.
Drs. Hoft and Frey not only stand behind the mission of the Center, they embody it every day. “We’re here to serve people,” Dr. Frey says. With the innovative research and development conducted at the Center for Vaccine Development, it’s only a matter of time until the next discovery, the next vaccine, or the next breakthrough that could potentially save the lives of millions.
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