Albany Medical College recently received a $10.2 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine for a dangerous and mysterious disease called tularemia, according to the college. Tularemia could also be used as a bioterror weapon, according to a college researcher.
There is no known vaccine for tularemia, which has symptoms such as skin ulcers, swollen and painful lymph glands, mouth sores and pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
The disease is also known as “rabbit fever” because it is most commonly transmitted to humans through small rodents.
Dr. Dennis Metzger, lead investigator and director of the Center for Immunology and Microbial Disease at the college, said that the bacteria “causes 100 to 200 cases a year, primarily in people who hunt small animals like rabbits and squirrels.”
While not usually fatal, tularemia becomes much more dangerous when dispersed as an aerosol.
“When hunters are creating pelts, the bacteria can become aerosolized and then it becomes very deadly,” Metzger said.
There have been recorded outbreaks every year for the past eight years at Martha’s Vineyard, Metzger said. According to the CDC, the bacteria that causes tularemia, Francisella tularensis, can remain alive for weeks in water and soil.
Metzger said the disease is particularly dangerous as a bioterror weapon. “[Tularemia] has been weaponized in the past by the United States and the former Soviet Union. The U.S. destroyed all of its stockpiles in the ’70s, but we’re not sure what happened to the stockpiles in the former Soviet republics,” he said.
“There’s no real treatment other than antibiotics, and if an organization made an antibiotic resistant strain we would have no way to defend against it.”
The NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases places tularemia in the highest category of known bio-threats, according to a college news release.
Ten to 15 of the organisms are capable of causing a fatal response, the release said.
Albany Medical College’s involvement with tularemia research can be traced back to 2002, when it first began receiving grants from the NIH to study the disease. The sum of those grants was approximately $18 million.
“Ten years ago when we first began, there were only three or four labs in the world working on tularemia,” Metzger said. “We’ve learned a lot in the intervening years, and our goal right now … is to leverage our knowledge and to create a vaccine.”
This latest grant is a renewal of an older grant, which will now extend through 2017.
Albany Medical College has been collaborating with a number of other researchers and laboratories in its effort to create a tularemia vaccine. As part of a different series of grants, Albany Medical College researchers held two tularemia international events in the past — one at Jiminy Peak in Hancock, Mass., in 2005 and one at the Sagamore in Bolton Landing at 2008 — at which scientists shared information.
Metzger said that there were 300 people in attendance at the meetings, including some former Soviet scientists who were once active in weaponizing the disease.
In addition to Metzger, the research team at Albany Medical College includes faculty members James Drake, Edmund Gosselin, Guangchun Bai, Jonathan Harton, Karsten Hazlett and Timothy Sellati.