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Human, animal vaccine development goal of hepatitis E virus research

Blacksburg, Va.--Dr. X.J. Meng, of Blacksburg, Va., a professor of virology in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicines Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology at Virginia Tech, has been awarded two research grants totaling almost $3 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the hepatitis E virus (HEV). The ultimate goal of the work is to develop a vaccine to protect people and animals from Hepatitis E.

HEV is an important human pathogen, according to Meng. The disease caused by HEV, Hepatitis E, is a major public health problem in developing countries in Asia and Africa, and in Mexico. Hepatitis E is also endemic in the United States and many other industrialized countries, according to Meng. Although the overall mortality associated with HEV infection is generally low (less than 1 percent), it can be as high as 28 percent in infected pregnant women. Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent Hepatitis E.

The major obstacle for Hepatitis E research and vaccine development has been the lack of a practical animal model system for HEV research and the inability to propagate HEV in cell culture, explains Meng. With funding from NIH, Mengs group recently discovered two HEV-related animal viruses in the United States: swine hepatitis E virus (swine HEV) from pigs, and avian hepatitis E virus (avian HEV) from chickens. It has since been demonstrated that swine HEV can cross species barriers and infect humans, and that human HEV can infect pigs. Hepatitis E is now regarded as a zoonotic disease.

With the discoveries of the two new animal viruses, Mengs group quickly developed a pig model and a chicken model to study the hepatitis E virus. Prior to Mengs discoveries of the two animal hepatitis E viruses, scientists were forced to use non-human primates in order to study the disease. Conducting HEV research with primates at one of the NIH regional primate centers is expensive and contains some ethical concerns, according to Meng, so developing the new animal models will be a major step forward in the research.

The first NIH grant, entitled Mechanism of hepatitis E virus replication and pathogenesis, conveys total funding of $1,561,797 and the co-investigators are Dr. Patrick G. Halbur, and Dr. Yao-Wei Huang. The second grant, entitled A chicken model to study hepatitis E virus pathogenesis includes funding of $1,266,300 and the co-investigators are Dr. F. William Pierson, Dr. Tanya LeRoith, and Dr. Yao-Wei Huang. Both grants begin on March 1, 2008 and will support four years of work.

The grants will enable researchers to learn more about the molecular mechanisms of HEV replication and pathogenesis by using pigs and chickens as animal model systems. Specifically, the researchers will study how HEV causes hepatitis, the gene(s) that are responsible for virulence, the mechanism(s) for cross-species infection by HEV, and how to attenuate the virus for vaccine development purpose. Ultimately, the researchers hope to develop a vaccine against this important human pathogen.

Mengs laboratory in the colleges Center for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Disease (CMMID) is considered one of the worlds leading Hepatitis E virus research centers. Previously, he had received nearly $2 million dollars from the NIH to study the same virus. Meng currently chairs the Hepatitis E Virus study group on the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).

Funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and several private corporations, Mengs lab also studies several economically important animal viruses including porcine circovirues, and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus. Recently, Mengs lab successfully developed the first USDA fully-licensed vaccine, Suvaxyn PCV2 One Dose, against porcine circovirus associated diseases, an economically important swine disease worldwide. Virginia Tech has licensed the vaccine to Wyeth Inc. and Fort Dodge Animal Health Inc., and the vaccine is currently on the U.S. and Canadian markets, and has now begun to enter the global markets. The vaccine is saving millions of dollars each year for the swine industry.


Contact: Jeff Douglas
Virginia Tech

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