Jae Jung, PhD, has received a five-year, $2.8 million award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, to develop a vaccine to treat an emerging tick-borne infectious disease called severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome (SFTS). Importantly, this is the inaugural grant awarded to researchers in Cleveland Clinic’s newly created Center for Global and Emerging Pathogens, for which Dr. Jung serves as center director.
The World Health Organization has designated the virus that causes SFTS (SFTSV) as a dangerous viral pathogen among the most likely to cause widespread epidemics in the near future. Infected ticks are the leading source of human SFTSV infection. The ticks that carry the virus have recently been found in 12 states in the United States, signaling the increased potential for a domestic outbreak.
“With the spread of ticks that could incubate and transmit the virus to humans, it’s critically important that we start working now to better understand the virus and look for a possible cure,” said Dr. Jung, who also serves as chair of Lerner Research Institute’s Department of Cancer Biology, “especially when you consider how serious SFTS and its outcomes can be for patients.”
The human mortality rate for SFTSV ranges from about 12 percent to as high as 30 percent, where increased age is believed to be a critical risk factor for this mortality—and morbidity—risk. SFTS is characterized by abnormally low platelet levels, which can cause serious blood clotting problems.
While there are currently no approved treatment options available for SFTS, there are four vaccine candidates that have shown early promise, each of which are a different vaccine type. With these funds, Dr. Jung and his team will test these possible vaccines, comparing their immunogenicity and protection efficacy, in various preclinical models.
The four vaccine candidates they will test include an attenuated vaccine (contains a version of the live virus that has been weakened in the lab), a recombinant virus vaccine (contains a well-characterized surrogate virus to carry viral antigens) and DNA- and protein-based vaccines.
“Our goal is to identify which of the four vaccine candidates are most promising for further study, in large part based on the neutralizing antibody and T cell responses they elicit, and to possibly identify opportunities where certain candidates may be improved,” said Dr. Jung.
The Jung laboratory has previously isolated and sequenced 133 different SFTSV strains from more than 3,000 patients and extensively studied virus pathogenesis, showing precisely how SFTSV overruns the host immune system, making them well poised to lead this vaccine candidate study.
Dr. Jung and his team will also work closely with international collaborators from South Korea, including Young-Ki Choi, PhD, Chungbuk University, who has extensive expertise in RNA virology and preclinical SFTSV models, and Su-Hyung Park, PhD, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, who is a leader in the field of DNA vaccines.
“I am thrilled to have joined Lerner Research Institute and our team is very excited to kick off research at our new Center for Global and Emerging Pathogens with this timely and important project,” commented Dr. Jung.