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Middle Atlantic Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases

The School of Medicine has joined the Middle Atlantic Regional Center of Excellence (RCE)for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases, a research consortium unveiled recently by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

A consortium of researchers from 16 biomedical research institutions will carry out the NIAID's strategic plan for biodefense research. Eight regional centers of excellence, or RCEs, will be established nationwide with grants totaling approximately $350 million over five years, $42 million of which will go to the Middle Atlantic RCE, to be led by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Penn investigators will receive an anticipated $6. 1 million over the course of this five-year grant.

The Middle Atlantic RCE will pursue the development of vaccines against anthrax and small-pox, focus on emerging infectious diseases such as West Nile Virus, and study new approaches to fighting viruses that cause deadly hemorrhagic fever, including Ebola and Marburg. The consortium will also examine other potential bioterror agents and the means to combat them. In addition, members of the Middle Atlantic RCE will design tests for faster detection of hazardous agents and innovative techniques to ensure a rapid public health response to biological attacks and outbreaks.

"In 1999, it was West Nile virus. In 2003, it was SARS. In 2004, who knows?There are a multitude of potentially dangerous viruses, bacteria and parasites that infect animals and that could be transmitted to humans, "said Dr. Robert W. Doms, professor and chair of the department of microbiology, and member of the five-person Executive Committee for the Middle Atlantic RCE. "Emerging infectious diseases are a real problem that we all need to be concerned about. Penn scientists are already leading research projects on West Nile virus, Ebola virus and smallpox, with the goal of developing vaccines and new therapeutics."

At the heart of the Middle Atlantic RCE are a number of research projects. Of the 18 approved for funding, five are underway at Penn. In addition to his leadership role for Penn, Dr. Doms is developing a vaccine for West Nile virus. Dr. Stuart Isaacs, assistant professor from the division of infectious diseases, is developing neutralizing antibodies that will help stem the potential ill effects of the vaccinia virus that is used to vaccinate against smallpox. Dr. John Lambris, professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine, is currently identifying antigens targeted by anti- bodies in immunized humans in order to engineer improved neutralizing antibodies.

Dr. Graham Simmons, a research associate in the department of microbiology, is studying how the Ebola virus gains entry into cells and how to block it from doing so. Dr. Gary Cohen, professor and chair of microbiology at the School of Dental Medicine, and Dr. Roselyn Eisenberg, professor and head of a Laboratory of Microbiology &Immunology in the School of Veterinary Medicine, are collaborating on a vaccine to counter the ill effects of vaccinia virus and confer additional protection against smallpox.

In addition to Penn and the University of Maryland, the Middle Atlantic RCE includes researchers from: Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia, the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, West Virginia University, Drexel University, the University of Vermont, the University of Missouri, Kansas City, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, and the University of Pittsburgh.


  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 4, September 16, 2003