Pitt gets Gates Foundation grant to study vaccines

$10 million to be put toward the control of infectious diseases

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The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health has received a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify vaccine strategies that may better control infectious disease outbreaks.

The Vaccine Modeling Initiative, a four-year project announced today, will use computer simulations of epidemics to evaluate new vaccines and optimum ways of providing vaccinations.

"The Gates Foundation has been investing heavily in control of infectious diseases in developing countries," said Dr. Donald Burke, dean of the public health school and the project's principal investigator.

But a major challenge in stopping outbreaks, he said, "is predicting how control strategies, such as vaccines, will work."

Investigators will use computer models to simulate disease outbreak scenarios in specific countries or regions. That approach, Dr. Burke said, will allow them to "test out the impact of new candidate vaccine technologies and select the most effective strategies."

The effort will include computer simulation to evaluate potential new vaccines that could be delivered to newborns, do not require refrigeration or could be delivered without needles, all goals of the Gates Foundation.

Overall, the initiative aims to improve decision-making in choosing new vaccines and epidemic control policies.

Each year, more than a million children die in poor countries from diseases that were eliminated long ago in industrialized nations, researchers noted in their grant proposal. Up to 27 million children in those countries do not receive basic vaccines, and millions more are immunized with vaccines that have lost potency.

"Neonatal immunization, improved stable vaccines, convenient needle-free delivery systems and new vaccine products could spare millions of children from serious infections and deaths each year," they noted.

The Vaccine Modeling Initiative will initially focus on dengue and dengue hemorrhagic fever in southeast Asia, measles in central Africa, pandemic flu in Indonesia, and malaria in a region still to be determined, Dr. Burke said. The project will make use of data provided by public health organizations in those areas, he said.

Later in the initiative, plans also call for developing vaccine models for pertussis, rotavirus, polio, pneumococcus and tuberculosis, though he noted details could change.

Besides Dr. Burke, the project will be led by two co-principal investigators: Drs. Bryan Grenfell of Pennsylvania State University and Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London.

Other collaborators include infectious disease experts, computational modelers or public health officials at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center; Carnegie Mellon University; Johns Hopkins University; Epicentre, a group established by Doctors Without Borders; the University of Georgia; Resources for the Future, a non-profit research group; and the World Health Organization.

Dr. Burke, who has been an adviser to the Gates Foundation, said the Vaccine Modeling Initiative is similar to research conducted earlier in the Modeling of Infectious Disease Agents Study, known as MIDAS, which has focused on avian flu.

He is also principal investigator of that project, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Joe Fahy can be reached at jfahy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.


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