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August 28, 2000

Baltimore Researchers Receive $40 Million from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and University of Maryland School of Medicine to Develop Measles Vaccine for Infants in Developing Countries

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded grants of $20 million each to the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health to develop a new type of measles vaccine that, for the first time, would protect infants younger than 9 months old. Such a vaccine would dramatically reduce the suffering and death rate from measles in developing countries.

"Finding a safe and effective vaccine to protect the world's youngest children against measles is an urgent global health priority," says Bill Foege, senior health advisor at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "We are tremendously hopeful that this collaboration between two major research facilities will speed the development of this important vaccine and ultimately help save millions of children's lives."

Measles kills more than 900,000 children each year in less developed parts of the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). While widespread use of the current injected measles vaccine has saved the lives of millions of children, the disease is far from being eradicated in the developing world because a window of vulnerability exists among infants from 5 to 8 months of age. Newborns are protected against measles by antibodies passed to them from their mothers, but those antibody levels drop steadily over time, increasing the infants' susceptibility to measles. At the same time, low levels of the mother's antibodies neutralize the effectiveness of the measles vaccine. For that reason, the WHO recommends that the current measles vaccine be administered when children are at least 9 months old.

"A safe, effective vaccine for younger infants will save lives and help eradicate measles worldwide by dramatically decreasing the size of the susceptible population," said Diane E. Griffin, chair of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and co-principal investigator on the grant to Johns Hopkins. "We are all convinced that a coordinated vaccine development and testing effort is the smartest, fastest approach. We are grateful to the Foundation for making this project possible."

"We are pleased that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has asked us to take on this ambitious, five-year project. It will involve laboratory work as well as clinical testing in Africa and South America," says Myron M. Levine, professor of medicine and pediatrics and director of the University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development. "Our goal is to close the window of vulnerability for infants by developing a safe and effective vaccine, despite the presence of maternal antibodies."

Researchers at each institution will use their individual strengths and expertise to reach the common goal. Previous attempts to develop a safe measles vaccine for infants younger than 9 months were not successful, but the scientists believe that several new technological advances can be used to overcome the earlier obstacles.

At the University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development, researchers will use their experience in creating oral and nasal spray vaccines to investigate the potential of a new "DNA vaccine," which uses only the genetic material of the virus rather than the whole virus to stimulate the immune system. Such a vaccine would be much easier to administer than an injection, especially in the least developed areas of the world.

A DNA vaccine would be made by placing genetic material from the measles virus inside weakened typhoid (Salmonella Typhi) bacteria or dysentery (Shigella) bacteria. The University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development is acknowledged as a world leader in this innovative, "bacterial live vector" approach.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have shown that a DNA vaccine can stimulate an effective immune response against measles in animals. Their approach will be to deliver the DNA vaccine by itself or through viruses unrelated to the measles virus. This will allow the genetic material of the measles virus to target the most important parts of the immune system without being eliminated by measles antibodies from the mother.

Once the most promising viral and bacterial vaccines have been developed, researchers at both institutions will test the different approaches in humans to determine which works best. The Johns Hopkins Center for Immunization Research, led by director and co-principal investigator Donald S. Burke, will play a major role in testing the effectiveness of the vaccines.

The presidents of both universities and the deans of the two schools say the grants recognize the tremendous pool of expertise available in Baltimore to address this important public health challenge.

"With these generous gifts to two Baltimore-based research groups, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation expresses enormous confidence in our city's scientific community and its ability to resolve a major world health problem," says William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins. "We're grateful for that confidence and eager to justify it."

"The University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development has a long history of coordinating complex vaccine development projects. We are excited about our opportunity to collaborate with the researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health," says David J. Ramsay, president of the Baltimore campus of the University of Maryland. "We congratulate Bill and Melinda Gates for their commitment to improve the quality of life for children in all parts of the world."

"The foundation has become a major force in promoting immunization as a way to reduce childhood deaths in developing countries," says Donald E. Wilson, University of Maryland vice president for medical affairs and dean of its School of Medicine. "Not only is this a wonderful opportunity for us to help solve an important public health problem, it is a testament to the exceptional quality of our researchers."

"The health of the world depends on developing new strategies for fighting infectious diseases, improving nutrition and advancing reproductive health. With these grants, and previous grants in nutrition and family planning, the foundation has greatly enhanced the ability of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to aggressively pursue its traditional goal of improving health around the world," says Alfred Sommer, dean of the School of Public Health.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is dedicated to improving people's lives by sharing advances in health and learning with the global community. Led by Bill Gates' father, William H. Gates, Sr., and Patty Stonesifer, the Seattle-based foundation has an asset base of $21.8 billion. Preventing deadly diseases among poor children by expanding access to vaccines, and developing vaccines against malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis, are central priorities. Other major efforts include extending unprecedented opportunities for learning by bringing computers with Internet access to every eligible library in the United States and Canada, and providing scholarships to academically talented minority students in the United States with severe financial need through the Gates Millennium Scholars Program.

Public Affairs Media Contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Brigham @ 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.