Texas A&M researchers working on vaccine for soldiers overseas

By BETH BROWN | The Eagle, Bryan, Texas | Published: August 25, 2013

Researchers at Texas A&M are doing their part to prepare military personnel abroad against a weaponized disease.

Allison Rice-Ficht, director of the Center for Microencapsulation and Drug Delivery at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, is developing the first human Brucella vaccine. The Brucella bacteria causes brucellosis, a chronic disease that causes high fever and weakness; if left untreated, it can cause arthritis, as well as heart and brain problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the bacteria as a potential biological weapon, so Rice-Ficht is working on a "pocket vaccine" that could be taken in the event of an attack.

Even when it is not weaponized, Rice-Ficht said, the livestock disease can be transmitted through milk and dairy products into humans. She said livestock in many countries in the Middle East carry brucellosis, so the vaccine could protect soldiers even if the bacteria is not weaponized.

"It's exciting that we may be able to make a difference with this vaccine," Rice-Ficht said. "A lot of faculty members have worked on it at the basic science level all the way to the applicable level, so this is the product of the work of a lot of people for decades. ... "

Rice-Ficht received a $2.6 million grant from the Department of Defense in 2007, which has been renewed twice since then.

"The DoD was interested because it's an international problem, and in a lot of places we deploy soldiers, like the Middle East, the human population is positive for brucellosis and so is livestock in those countries," she said. "So they were interested in protecting the soldiers, but also because this could be released as a biological weapon so we needed something that could be deployed."

Rice-Ficht and her team are testing forms of the vaccine that can be injected, and the tablet form has proven successful in wildlife. Researchers have been through three animal models, and the next step is to test it on humans.

She said researchers are waiting to hear back on additional grants that will allow them to start human tests. Rice-Ficht said that should be in the next six months.

She's hopeful that, when the vaccine is ready, large-scale manufacturing would be done at the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing at Texas A&M.

"That's the logical next step -- to take advantage of the NCTM," Rice-Ficht said.