Professor Robert K. Ernst, PhD, of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD) has been awarded a five-year, $6.4 million contract from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to develop and test new adjuvants for use in future vaccines.
An adjuvant is added to a vaccine to, as NIAID notes, "enhance its ability to induce protection against infection."
As program director, Ernst who also is vice chair of the school’s Department of Microbial Pathogenesis, will lead a team of UMSOD researchers who will collaborate with Russ Middaugh, PhD, of the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy and the Macromolecule and Vaccine Stabilization Center, both in Lawrence, Kan.; Wendy Picking, PhD, of the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy; and two industry consultants with extensive backgrounds in adjuvant development.
Using bacterial enzymatic combinatorial chemistry (BECC), Ernst’s UMSOD team has produced a number of potential adjuvants that will be evaluated with protein antigens from Y. pestis, the causative agent of the plague, and Shigella, which causes shigellosis. The new adjuvants will be evaluated for both antigen- and dose-sparing capabilities, which could result in decreased cost and improved compliance.
"This will represent a significant advance in vaccine development," Ernst says. "High-efficacy adjuvants, when formulated in component vaccines, can be used to combat the global health burden of a wide range of human pathogens.
"For novel vaccines to be developed," he continues, "it is critical that high-quality antigenic targets are identified and used in combination with current or novel adjuvants to increase their immunogenic capacities, such as decreasing the amount of antigen or number of doses required to elicit a strong long-term protective immune response."
UMSOD Dean Mark A. Reynolds, DDS '86, PhD, MA, says: "By producing a new generation of adjuvants that enhance the ability of vaccines to induce protective immunity, the research that Dr. Ernst and his collaborators are pursuing has the potential to help millions. Improving the effectiveness of vaccines will impact preventable diseases worldwide."
At the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 2017, Ernst was named Founders Week Researcher of the Year.