Stressing the need to prevent the spread of a highly pathogenic influenza virus -such as the bird flu strain circulating in Southeast Asia and elsewhere -researchers at Stony Brook University Medical Centre have begun a clinical study of an experimental vaccine.
The study marks the first avian flu vaccine to be tested on Long Island. Volunteers are being recruited for experimental doses, which are administered in two shots several weeks apart.
“This is a Phase 1 vaccine,” said lead investigator Dr Roy Steigbigel, referring to the safety and efficacy clinical trial. “It’s a graded-dose vaccine, meaning that people are started off with a lower dose. At each point there is a safety analysis.”
Steigbigel and colleagues are studying the vaccine, made by Vical Inc. of San Diego, in volunteers ages 18 to 45. Another arm of the study is being conducted at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. The vaccine targets H5N1, the avian flu virus that has been infecting people worldwide. The World Health Organisation estimates the virus has been fatal in 204 of 332 cases in the past four-years. Most people have caught it from direct contact with sick birds.
Dr David Graham, chief deputy commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health, said he is pleased that bird flu vaccine research is being conducted locally. “In the event we have any further transmission or sustained transmission of H5N1 the proper response would be to mobilise our scientific community and pharmaceutical industry to manufacture a safe vaccine in a short period of time.
“That’s the whole idea of having these clinical trials, to investigate the effectiveness and safety of a vaccine,” Graham said.
The vaccine is unlike previous ones because it is composed only of DNA derived from one of the two key surface proteins on H5N1. The DNA cannot cause infection. Steigbigel underscored the vaccine is manufactured via genetic technology, which eliminates the cumbersome and time-consuming use of chicken eggs, millions of which are required to produce the annual seasonal flu vaccine.
Dr John Treanor of the University of Rochester, who is set to speak at Stony Brook today, said genetic technology would allow pharmaceutical companies to ramp up production faster in the event of a flu pandemic. He led the country’s first test of a bird flu vaccine two-years ago.