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$3.6 Million NIH Grant Awarded to NYBC Scientist for Research on River Blindness Vaccine

Grant brings NYBC scientists one step closer to developing a preventive vaccine ready for first-in-human trials by 2020

by New York Blood Center
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river blindness parasite, abstract

NEW YORK, NY — New York Blood Center (NYBC) announced June 19 that researcher Dr. Sara Lustigman, Head of Laboratory of Molecular Parasitology at NYBC's Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute, has obtained a five-year, $3.6 million grant to put into action a strategic plan to create a preventative vaccine for River Blindness, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the disease from Sub-Saharan Africa. The grant comes from the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Dr. Lustigman, her team at NYBC, and a consortium of partners will continue their work on developing a prophylactic vaccine for the disease. River Blindness, scientifically known as onchocerciasis, is a skin and eye disease transmitted by Onchocerca volvulus (O. volvulus), a parasite that can cause permanent blindness. An estimated 18 million people are still infected with O. volvulus, including 12.2 million who suffer from Onchocerca skin disease and 1.025 million people who have permanent vision loss, according to the World Health Organization and the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015.

"We are extremely grateful to the NIH for moving this project forward," said Dr. Lustigman, who has studied river blindness for more than 30 years at NYBC. "New tools are desperately needed, particularly a prophylactic vaccine that will support the elimination of this disease rather than only controlling it by mass drug administration (MDA) with ivermectin, which reduces transmission but does not cure the disease." 

Dr. Lustigman added: "While we are pleased to have received this new round of funding after a hiatus of two years, we still need additional support and funding to put further research towards clinical development and to finally end this neglected disease."

Dr. Lustigman's approach for developing a prophylactic vaccine includes two parallel strategies. She and her partners will test vaccine formulations in mice to identify those that induce the highest protective immunity. Formulations will then be tested in naïve calves against a natural infection with O. ochengi, a closely related parasite known to mimic the immunological status of humans living in regions susceptible for O. volvulus infection. Once the optimal vaccine formulation is found, the consortium will move to clinical development and first-in-human clinical phase 1 trials by the year 2020.

"We believe that our strategic goal should be to vaccinate children who have not yet had access to MDA with ivermectin; the vaccination will prevent infection in this vulnerable population, and also help prevent reintroduction of infection in areas where it might have been controlled through MDA," Dr. Lustigman said. "This is what these essential clinical trials will help us to prove."

"Dr. Lustigman and NYBC's Laboratory of Molecular Parasitology have continued in decades of leadership toward developing a vaccine that will forever change the lives of the millions affected by this disease," said Christopher D. Hillyer, MD, president and CEO of NYBC. "This is a critical time: we are closer than ever to developing a prophylactic vaccine for River Blindness. This is a proud moment for NYBC, as we are at the forefront of this multinational effort." 

Lord Alexander John "Sandy" Trees, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Parasitology, University of Liverpool, and Crossbench Member of the United Kingdom's House of Lords said: "It is very exciting to see that partners from United States, UK, and Africa have joined forces to advance the world's first onchocerciasis vaccine and continue on in a mission I was part of. They will use the natural infection system in calves that I developed years ago to validate the effectiveness of their onchocerciasis vaccines before they are tested in the first clinical trial with humans." Lord Trees has made significant contributions to the field of tropical medicine, and in particular to those suffering from River Blindness in West Africa.

Dr. Lustigman and NYBC are part of the international initiative TOVA—The Onchocerciasis Vaccine for Africa—which was established in 2015 and is comprised of 14 world-renowned scientists and research centers. Its mission is to develop recombinant protein-based vaccines that will support the efforts to eliminate River Blindness in Sub-Saharan Africa. More information on the TOVA Initiative can be found at:

The collaborative partners on the NIH grant are Dr. Ben Makepeace of the University of Liverpool, UK; Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX; and Dr. David Abraham of the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA.