The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md, has awarded a $1.3 million, two-year grant to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine to produce a promising avian flu vaccine that could be used in Phase I and Phase II human clinical trials.

In January of this year, Pitt researchers reported in the journal Virology that their vaccine, which contains critical components of the deadly H5N1 virus but does not cause disease, completely protected mice and chickens from infection after exposure to the wild-type virus.

According to Andrea Gambotto, MD, assistant professor in the departments of surgery and molecular genetics and biochemistry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and lead investigator on the project, the funding will allow his group to begin immediate scale-up of vaccine production.

“It will take us a few weeks to get our facility ready. However, we hope to begin vaccine production by early fall,” he said.

Gambotto and his co-workers created their vaccine by genetically engineering a common cold virus, called adenovirus, to express either all or parts of an avian influenza protein called hemagglutinin (HA) on its surface. Found on the surface of all influenza viruses, HA allows the virus to attach to and infect a cell, a critical step in the influenza virus’ ability to cause illness and death. Because this vaccine contains a live virus, the Pitt investigators believe it may be more effective in stimulating a therapeutic immune response than avian flu vaccines prepared by traditional methods.