Year: 2014

Personalized Medicine Company to be Located at UConn Health

As it appeared in UConn Today on December 16, 2014.

MultiClonal Therapeutics Inc. (MCT) has selected UConn’s Technology Incubation Program in Farmington as its new location, where it will pursue the development of therapies based on the company’s transformative platform for cloning patient-specific stem cells.

MCT was recently formed by a research team led by Jackson Laboratory (JAX) researchers Frank McKeon and Wa Xian. The company will apply technology discovered by McKeon and Xian to model major diseases, key regulators discovered, and small molecule and biologics validated across patient cohorts. MCT will focus on chronic inflammatory diseases of the airways and gastrointestinal tract, regenerative strategies for organ-specific diseases, and therapies directed at cancer stem cells and chemotherapy-resistant variants.

McKeon and Xian’s discovery of a lung regeneration mechanism was reported in the Nov. 12, 2014 issue of Nature. Also in November, the State of Connecticut Bond Commission approved a $1.1 million Regenerative Medicine Grant to JAX in order to further the team’s research on mechanisms of Crohn’s Disease revealed by patient-specific stem cells.

“November has been a banner month for our partners at MCT and for UConn,” said Jeff Seemann, UConn’s vice president for research. “We are excited to see MCT participate in the University’s job creation effort. This company is the first of many startups expected to result from the State’s recruitment of JAX to Connecticut, and the University is pleased to offer the facility needed to retain this promising venture in the state. The TIP location allows a prestigious research team to continue its important scientific work in Connecticut, and to seamlessly apply their learnings to personalized therapies being developed within a promising new company.”

McKeon noted that UConn has been a partner in the company’s research, along with other prominent institutions including the Genome Institute of Singapore and Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Harvard Medical School. “Now as a member of the Technology Incubation Program, that partnership will grow in multiple directions,” he said. “MCT’s UConn location will bolster its success by providing resources to support both our business and R&D needs.”

The UConn Technology Incubation Program is part of the University’s multifaceted technology commercialization enterprise and provides labs and research and development resources as well as business development services both to emerging companies and to existing firms expanding into new markets. Incubator programs remove some of the risk and startup costs for entrepreneurs, and raise visibility for companies among prospective investors. In 2013 alone, the 20 companies in UConn’s incubator program employed 58 full-time and 48 part-time staff members, secured 13 patents, and had another 56 patents pending.

New Collaboration to Create World-Class Microscopy Center

By: Tim Miller

Image of Immune Cell Communication
An image of immune cell communication, showing dendritic cells interacting with T cells, taken using an FEI microscope, magnification 16,000x. (Rita Serda/FEI Image)

The University of Connecticut and scientific instrument maker FEI Co. have signed an agreement to develop a cutting-edge center for microscopy and materials science research. The center, which will be housed in the new Innovation Partnership Building at UConn’s Tech Park, will feature some of the most advanced commercially available electron microscopes.

Titan Themis TEM
FEI’s flagship microscope, Titan Themis TEM, is capable of more than one-hundred million times magnification, allowing scientists to see the individual atoms that materials are made of, determine their arrangement, and measure the electrical and magnetic forces they exert on one another. The Titan Themis will be one of the instruments housed at a new cutting-edge center for microscopy and materials science research to be located at UConn’s Tech Park.
“The new Center at the UConn Tech Park will be the foremost microscopy facility in the world,” says Mun Choi, UConn’s Provost. “The transmission, scanning, and ion beam instruments will enable our faculty and students to manipulate and analyze materials at atomic scales. Their ability to create new applications for energy, electronics, and biomolecular sectors will be unparalleled.”

The center will focus on the advanced characterization of materials, which has nearly limitless applications, ranging from clean energy and alternative fuels, to advanced manufacturing technology; semiconductors; vaccine development; and the development of medical devices.

The center will open its doors in mid-2015, with the arrival of the first three microscopes from FEI. These instruments will be housed in UConn’s Institute of Materials Science. The center will move to its permanent home in Tech Park’s Innovation Partnership Building when construction is complete, which is currently scheduled for 2017.

Funding for the center is being provided in roughly equal amounts by both UConn and Hillsboro, Ore.-based FEI, and is expected to exceed $25 million over a 15-year period.

When complete, the center will house a total of seven instruments from FEI, including the flagship microscope, Titan Themis TEM, which is capable of more than one-hundred million times magnification, allowing scientists to see the individual atoms that materials are made of, determine their arrangement, and measure the electrical and magnetic forces they exert on one another.

In addition to the acquisition of the instruments, the agreement includes research funding and support for an electron microscopy scientist and numerous graduate student fellowships. The new microscopy center may also draw researchers from peer academic institutions and industry to the facility to take advantage of its advanced materials characterization capabilities.

“Developing industry partnerships focused on innovative, cutting-edge research are an important goal of the UConn Tech Park,” says Choi, “and this center represents an important step in realizing this goal.”

Facebook Graduate Fellowship Program

Facebook announces the launch of the 2015-2016 Facebook Graduate Fellowship Program. Facebook created the fellowship program to encourage and support promising graduate students who are doing cutting edge research around the globe. We are excited for the opportunity to fund future thought leaders and look forward to reviewing submissions from your students!

This year, Facebook is accepting applications for research in the following areas:

• Architecture
• Computer Vision
• Data Mining
• Databases
• Distributed Systems
• Economics and Computation
• Human-Computer Interaction/Social Computing
• Machine Learning
• Natural Language Processing
• Networking / Operating Systems
• Programming Languages / Compilers
• Security / Privacy
• Software Engineering

We will be expanding the fellowship to a two-year program and each fellowship will include payment of tuition and fees for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years, a $37,000 unrestricted yearly grant, and a visit to Facebook’s HQ in Menlo Park for winners to present their research.

Students can find more information and the application link at

UConn Doubling Capacity to Cultivate Business Startups

By: Chris DeFrancesco

A new construction project now underway on the UConn Health campus will double the University’s total business incubator space for the cultivation of startups throughout the state.

The $19.4 million addition to the Cell and Genome Sciences Building represents an expansion of UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP), which provides lab space and services to dozens of companies that are commercializing technology.

The project is the latest in a series of initiatives funded by Bioscience Connecticut, a nearly $1 billion package of state investments, which supports the vision of creating a regional hub that can serve as a catalyst for biomedical science and health care advancement, and the anticipated economic growth associated with it.

new incubator space in Farmington
Visualization of the new incubator space in Farmington that is now under construction. (Image by Goody Clancy)

“The incubator expansion at UConn Health is a great opportunity for Connecticut’s citizens and industry,” says Jeff Seemann, vice president for research. “This expansion provides a physical resource to capture the companies and jobs emanating from Bioscience Connecticut for the state, and ensures that opportunities rapidly develop by extending a bundle of services designed to grow and sustain them.”

The first occupants are expected to move into the new TIP space at UConn Health by December 2015. The expansion in Farmington will add 28,000 square feet for new tenants, which have the option to develop their ideas in high-tech facilities at the Farmington, Storrs, or Avery Point campuses.

“UConn’s incubator offers even greater value by providing access to unique assets and expertise that can only be found at a leading research institution,” Seemann adds.

A corridor at the new incubator space
A corridor at the new incubator space in Farmington that is now under construction. (Image by Goody Clancy)

The University provides a variety of support for the ventures, ranging from access to scientific expertise to address research and development challenges, to business planning and investor cultivation. And new startups can take advantage of the core research facilities, University library, computer network, entrepreneurial education and networking programs, and student internship programs.

Timothy Folta, faculty director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the UConn School of Business, notes that incubators provide a variety of benefits to both the startup companies and the University.

In addition to removing some of the risk and startup costs for entrepreneurs, the programs facilitate a knowledge exchange.

“There is increased evidence that geographic clusters of economic activity – think Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle – promote a spillover of knowledge, another advantage of the incubator concept,” Folta says.

Tenants of the TIP space are diverse, performing work in the physical and life sciences, and leading innovations in medical devices, informational technology, and advanced manufacturing. While many tenants are startups, existing firms also are able to join the program to pursue new opportunities or to develop partnerships with UConn faculty.

In the decade since the program began, more than two dozen businesses have been launched – reflecting a startup success rate of 60 percent – well above the national average of 25 percent.

Visualization of the library at the new incubator space in Farmington
Visualization of the library at the new incubator space in Farmington that is now under construction. (Image by Goody Clancy)

Among those are such ventures as Metrocrops, a company owned by UConn alumni and leveraging hydroponic expertise and proprietary LED lighting technology for high-density urban farming. Another TIP graduate, IMCORP, has been recognized by INC. Magazine as one of the fastest-growing engineering companies in the U.S. for six consecutive years. IMCORP built on technology developed at UConn that detects breakage in underground utility cables.

Newer ventures include biotechnology startup BIOARRAY Therapeutics Inc., which was founded in Massachusetts and moved to Connecticut. That company is developing predictive diagnostic tests, based on cancer genes, to choose the most efficacious treatment for cancer patients.

The new facility will add to UConn’s ability to serve industry that fuels the economy. In 2013 alone, the 20 companies in UConn’s incubator program employed 58 full-time and 48 part-time staff members, secured 13 patents, and had another 56 patents pending. Overall, Bioscience Connecticut construction has created more than 2,800 construction jobs, with 83 percent of the contracts going to Connecticut companies.


JAX Genomic Medicine Opens at UConn Health

Atrium of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine at the UConn Health
The atrium of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine at the UConn Health campus in Farmington. (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health Photo)

The promise of Bioscience Connecticut, and the prospect of expanding into medical applications of genomics, helped attract The Jackson Laboratory to Farmington and the UConn Health campus in 2011. Now just three years later, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine is opening its new $135 million research center, and its scientists are already collaborating with a wide array of UConn researchers to help tackle some of the world’s most difficult diseases.

Today Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, UConn President Susan Herbst, national scientific leaders, and JAX senior officials officially commemorate the opening of the new Jackson facility. Speakers at the ceremony will include Dr. Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute; Cynthia Morton, president of the American Society of Human Genetics and Harvard Medical School professor; JAX Genomic Medicine Scientific Director Charles Lee; JAX Executive Vice President and COO Charles Hewett; and JAX President and CEO Edison Liu.

Located on the lower campus of UConn Health, the newly constructed 183,500-square-foot building has four stories, 17 wet labs, 17 computational labs, and a 200-seat auditorium. It can accommodate 330 employees, and was designed with large, open suites to encourage the sharing of ideas among scientists, including those from UConn.

Exterior View of Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine
An exterior view of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine at the UConn Health campus. (Derek Hayn/Centerbrook Architects)

The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine is a nonprofit research center that identifies the precise genetic causes of diseases and spurs the development of individualized plans of treatment and prevention.

Liu, the President of JAX, says genomic medicine represents the next great frontier in the quest to improve human health. “With this new facility, we are poised to play a leading role in opening up that frontier and bringing the benefits of scientific discovery into the lives of patients.”

Lab in the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine
The interior of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine is designed with large, open suites to encourage the sharing of ideas among scientists, including those from UConn. (Derek Hayn/Centerbrook Architects)

Scientists at JAX Genomic Medicine are building collaborations among doctors, researchers, and the biomedical industry to bring genomic research and technology into the clinical setting, and help build Connecticut’s bioscience industry. To date, nearly two dozen grant applications involving JAX and UConn researchers have been submitted for funding.

“We’re submitting grants in areas that we would have never submitted before JAX arrived,” says Marc Lalande, chair of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology at UConn Health. “We’re collaborating with them in areas where they are bringing genomics and we’re bringing clinical expertise, such as in geriatrics, where we have an excellent Center on Aging.”

Dr. George Kuchel, director of UConn Health’s Center on Aging, says, “Having JAX here has been a game-changer.” Kuchel is interested in working with JAX on an effective vaccine to fight pneumococcus – a type of bacteria that can cause several severe infections, including pneumonia. These infections can be serious and even life-threatening, especially in people with impaired immune systems, older adults, and young children.

Even though vaccines may help prevent some types of pneumonia, it is still a very common illness that affects millions every year. “Pneumonia vaccination has been shown to be effective in different populations, but unfortunately it doesn’t work as well as we would like it to work,” says Kuchel. “We need to come up with something better.”

Interior View of Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine
An interior view of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine. (Derek Hayn/Centerbrook Architects)

In addition to the grants that are pending, several have already been awarded, even during this era of reduced federal financing.

One such collaborative National Institutes of Health (NIH) award was to Jeffrey Chuang, an associate professor at JAX Genomic Medicine, and UConn Health’s genetics and developmental biology professor Brent Graveley. Chuang, an expert in computational genomics, partnered with Graveley, a pioneer in the study of RNA molecules and the principal investigator of a $9.3 million ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE) NIH award, to map protein binding sites in RNA, an important mechanism by which genes can be regulated.

“Having JAX here has completely altered the type of science that I do and the interactions that I have,” says Graveley. “JAX has brought a whole slew of experts in my area of genomics. We’ve initiated projects and been involved with several grant applications together, and none of that would have happened if JAX hadn’t moved to Connecticut.”

As JAX marks its grand opening today, the UConn Health campus continues to change. More Bioscience Connecticut projects are moving forward, including additions to the Cell and Genome Sciences building for bioscience start-ups, and expansion of the UConn Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine. The next major event will be the opening of the UConn Health Outpatient Pavilion in the winter of 2015.

Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity Moves to UConn

By: Kristen Cole

Connecticut’s flagship public university today announced a new partnership with the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, a nationally recognized nonprofit research center dedicated to informing policy decisions surrounding obesity prevention.

Officials from the University of Connecticut and the Rudd Center discussed the center’s new affiliation with UConn during a ceremony at Goodwin Elementary School in East Hartford that emphasized the importance of research in preventing obesity and improving the health of young people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children in the United States are obese or overweight, causing both immediate and long-term effects on their health and well-being.

Marlene Schwartz, Rudd Center Director speaks
Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center, speaks at an event announcing the move of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity to UConn. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“The Rudd Center has developed an outstanding national and international reputation for sound science and strategic policy advocacy,” said Mun Choi, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “We are thrilled to have the Rudd Center join UConn as we build a growing record of excellence at our institution.”

Jeff Fisher, PhD
Jeffrey Fisher, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Psychology and director of CHIP, speaks at the event at Goodwin Elementary School in East Hartford on Sept. 12. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Previously located at Yale University, the center and its faculty will move to UConn in January 2015. It is one of the first major initiatives of UConn’s Academic Vision, which prioritizes health and wellness research as an integral part of the University’s mission.

Recently ranked as one of the nation’s most effective nonprofits working on nutrition policy, the Rudd Center is a leader in conducting cutting-edge research to inform pressing public policy issues; its work is widely used by policy makers and health advocates.

Students Harvesting Vegetables
Students at Goodwin Elementary School in East Hartford harvest vegetables, during an event to announce the move of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity to UConn on Sept. 12. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The Rudd Center is currently anchored by four core faculty members, all national experts in their fields: Marlene Schwartz, Rudd Center director; Rebecca Puhl, deputy director; Jennifer Harris, director of food marketing initiatives; and Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives.

“We are excited to join UConn and the community of world-class researchers whose work is relevant to childhood obesity and weight stigma,” said Schwartz. “By joining UConn during this monumental time of growth, the Rudd Center will remain a leader in addressing how home environments, school landscapes, neighborhoods, and the media shape the eating attitudes and behaviors of children.”

The move will allow those researchers to expand their work and build new collaborations with UConn experts on nutrition, public policy, psychology, agriculture, economics, and obesity – many located within the University’s Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), where the Rudd Center will be situated. CHIP, which is led by Jeffrey Fisher, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Psychology, has received more than $100 million in external funding to support its health-related research, and has a proven track record of fostering interdisciplinary collaborations between many of these research areas. Its Obesity Research Group boasts 130 members from more than 20 UConn departments and multiple campuses.

Student harvests produce
A student at Goodwin Elementary School in East Hartford displays vegetables he has harvested. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Importantly, the Rudd Center’s relocation to Hartford’s Constitution Plaza, near UConn’s Graduate Business Learning Center, positions its resources near Connecticut policymakers. Rudd Center researchers have participated in meetings with the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, provided expert testimony in state and senate legislative hearings on proposed laws, and their research has provided essential support for federal, state, and local governments and NGOs in establishing evidence-based public health policy. Their research grants hail from government agencies and private foundations, including the Rudd Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, American Heart Association, and Horizon Foundation.

The alignment between UConn and Rudd provides a new platform for researchers to elevate their work on obesity, investigating such varied questions as: economic incentives and the role of marketing in food choices; genetic and neurophysiological moderators of risk for obesity; chemosensory perception in humans and how it influences food preference and intake; worksite health promotion programs; weight management interventions for adults and children; faith-based interventions; identifying ‘food deserts’ and measuring health outcomes in those areas; effects of cholesterol-lowering medications on muscle performance; obesity prevention policies; and weight-based stigma and bullying.

Tiny Heart Valve Has Big Potential for UConn Startup

By: William Weir, School of Engineering

Eric Dirois '14 Ph.D., CEO of the startup company Dura Biotech
Eric Sirois ’14 Ph.D., CEO of startup company Dura Biotech, which has developed a novel heart valve replacement. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

An unlikely combination of biomedical engineering and meticulous sewing skills has led to an innovative heart valve replacement that could save countless lives.

Its maker, Dura Biotech, is a UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) participant. Its CEO, Eric Sirois, received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at UConn earlier this year.

This summer, Sirois and his research team enjoyed a particularly eventful week, when the company received two major awards, each worth $400,000. One was from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF); the second was a federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The funding will enable the team to begin testing the product.

Since the company was founded in 2012, Dura Biotech has focused on potentially game-changing innovations in the field of heart valves. One is the LowPro Valve, a transcatheter aortic valve 40 percent smaller than anything on the market.

Because the catheter enters the femoral artery in the groin, patients don’t need to undergo open heart surgery, a procedure that takes several weeks of recovery time and can pose great risks for many patients.

Smaller is important

Catheters are traditionally measured in units known as French (one is equal to about one-third of a millimeter). Those on the market today are about 22 French.

“The next generation is about 18,” says Sirois, “and ours is 14.” And with the recent funding, part of which will pay for animal testing, Sirois is confident they can bring the size down to 12 French.

Smaller is important. It has been estimated that about 17,000 patients this year can’t have the procedure because their arteries are too small for currently available catheters.

“We’re targeting older people, but we’re thinking about using it for children, too, because many children are born with heart defects, but current valves are too large for them,” he says.

Dura Biotech team photo
The Dura Biotech team, standing, from left: Adam Guerrette ’15 (BUS), Joseph Calderan ’14 MS, Rebecca Newman ’16 (ENG), Chris Fitzpatrick ’13 (ENG), Eric Sirois ’14 Ph.D., and seated, Andrea Mandragouras ’13 (ENG), and Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG). (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

Sirois is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. While he was figuring out what he wanted to do in his civilian life, he learned that UConn had one of the leading biomedical engineering departments in the U.S. That appealed to him, and he came to the University in 2005.

“I like analyzing systems,” he says, “and I wanted to look at the body like a machine.”

During his graduate studies, he enrolled in the entrepreneur program, taught by Hadi Bozorgmanesh, professor of practice in the School of Engineering.

“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I just figured that you have to go out into industry for 15 years or so first and then come back,” Sirois says. “But Hadi has a whole different way of looking at it: ‘Don’t put off for one minute what you can start right now.’ So, we founded the company and I haven’t looked back since.”

Bozorgmanesh is confident Sirois can lead the company to success. He notes that while Sirois is “totally focused” on making Dura Biotech a success, he also spends time helping other start-ups and inspiring undergraduate students to become entrepreneurs.

Adaptive strategy

When Sirois founded Dura Biotech in 2012 with Wei Sun, a former associate professor at UConn, the original idea wasn’t to make a smaller valve, but a longer-lasting one (hence the “Dura” in the company’s name). They created the Dura Heart Valve, a valve that lasts four times longer than valves currently on the market.

Last October, Sirois and his team took the Dura Heart Valve to the biggest transcatheter conference in the U.S. The company’s poster was voted among the best, but drumming up interest in the product itself wasn’t so easy.

“We talked to the doctors – and they all didn’t care,” Sirois says. “Everyone agreed that it was indeed more durable. But they also pointed out that most of their patients are old, so the valve’s extended life span wasn’t a big draw.”

For an extra dose of discouragement, an investor told them that clinical trials specifically testing for durability take up to eight years.

“And they’re super-expensive,” Sirois says. “Instead of $7 million, it would cost about $300 million. No one’s going to invest in that. We were heartbroken, but some people suggested that if you could make it thicker and last four times as long, why not make it thinner and last the same amount of time?”

So they got to work on that. The secret is in the “crimped delivery” design, in which part of the valve’s material – the leaflet – is made thinner. With less material in the way, the valve can crimp more narrowly. A patent is pending on the technology.

Sewing up the solution

Assembling the design requires sewing together three of the valve’s main components. Considering the size of the components and the precision required, this is no easy task.

Sirois, who had learned to sew uniforms in the military, tried making the valves himself. But they are tiny, and they have to be perfect.

Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG)
Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG) works on the LowPro Valve. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

So the team hired two lab technicians, Andrea Mandragouras and Jaclyn Mazzarella, who finally, after many, many attempts, perfected the necessary sewing technique.

The change in strategy paid off. Within three months, they had a prototype, a marketing strategy, and a marketing niche carved out. They soon won a $10,000 Entrepreneur Innovation Award from CT Next, and a $50,000 Third Bridge award from the quasi-state organization Connecticut Innovation. And now, they have an additional $800,000 in recent awards.

Sirois says the company hopes to raise seed investments of $2 to $3 million next year. He estimates that the company will need at least $10 million to get his device through regulatory approval in Europe.

UConn Researcher’s Nanoparticle Key to New Malaria Vaccine

self-assembling protein nanoparticle
This self-assembling protein nanoparticle relies on rigid protein structures called ‘coiled coils’ (blue and green in the image) to create a stable framework upon which scientists can attach malaria parasite antigens. Early tests show that injecting the nanoparticles into the body as a vaccine initiates a strong immune system response that destroys a malarial parasite when it enters the body and before it has time to spread. (Image courtesy of Peter Burkhard)

For years, scientists trying to develop a malaria vaccine have been stymied by the malaria parasite’s ability to transform itself and “hide” in the liver and red blood cells of an infected person to avoid detection by the immune system.

But a novel protein nanoparticle developed by Peter Burkhard, a professor in the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology, in collaboration with David Lanar, an infectious disease specialist with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, has shown to be effective at getting the immune system to attack the most lethal species of malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, after it enters the body and before it has a chance to hide and aggressively spread.

The key to the vaccine’s success lies in the nanoparticle’s perfect icosahedral symmetry (think of the pattern on a soccer ball) and ability to carry on its surface up to 60 copies of the parasite’s protein. The proteins are arranged in a dense, carefully constructed cluster that the immune system perceives as a threat, prompting it to release large amounts of antibodies that can attack and kill the parasite.

In tests with mice, the vaccine was 90-100 percent effective in eradicating the Plasmodium falciparum parasite and maintaining long-term immunity over 15 months. That success rate is considerably higher than the reported success rate for RTS,S, the world’s most advanced malaria vaccine candidate currently undergoing phase 3 clinical trials, which is the last stage of testing before licensing.

Peter Burkhard, professor of molecular and cell biology
Peter Burkhard, professor of molecular and cell biology, with an image of the protein nanoparticle he designed. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“Both vaccines are similar, it’s just that the density of the RTS,S protein displays is much lower than ours,” says Burkhard. “The homogeneity of our vaccine is much higher, which produces a stronger immune system response. That is why we are confident that ours will be an improvement.

“Every single protein chain that forms our particle displays one of the pathogen’s protein molecules that are recognized by the immune system,” adds Burkhard, an expert in structural biology affiliated with UConn’s Institute of Materials Science. “With RTS,S, only about 14 percent of the vaccine’s protein is from the malaria parasite. We are able to achieve our high density because of the design of the nanoparticle, which we control.”

The research was published in Malaria Journal in 2013.

The search for a malaria vaccine is one of the most important research projects in global public health. The disease is commonly transported through the bites of nighttime mosquitoes. Those infected suffer from severe fevers, chills, and a flu-like illness. In severe cases, malaria causes seizures, severe anemia, respiratory distress, and kidney failure. Each year, more than 200 million cases of malaria are reported worldwide. The World Health Organization estimated that 627,000 people died from malaria in 2012, many of them children living in sub-Saharan Africa.

It took the researchers more than 10 years to finalize the precise assembly of the nanoparticle as the critical carrier of the vaccine and find the right parts of the malaria protein to trigger an effective immune response. The research was further complicated by the fact that the malaria parasite that impacts mice used in lab tests is structurally different from the one infecting humans.

The scientists used a creative approach to get around the problem.

David Lanar
nfectious disease specialist David Lanar of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, who is collaborating with UConn professor Peter Burkhard in pursuing a new malaria vaccine. (Photo courtesy of David Lanar)

“Testing the vaccine’s efficacy was difficult because the parasite that causes malaria in humans only grows in humans,” Lanar says. “But we developed a little trick. We took a mouse malaria parasite and put in its DNA a piece of DNA from the human malaria parasite that we wanted our vaccine to attack. That allowed us to conduct inexpensive mouse studies to test the vaccine before going to expensive human trials.”

The pair’s research has been supported by a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and $2 million from the U.S. Military Infectious Disease Research Program. A request for an additional $7 million in funding from the U.S. Army to conduct the next phase of vaccine development, including manufacturing and human trials, is pending.

“We are on schedule to manufacture the vaccine for human use early next year,” says Lanar. “It will take about six months to finish quality control and toxicology studies on the final product and get permission from the FDA to do human trials.”

Lanar says the team hopes to begin early testing in humans in 2016 and, if the results are promising, field trials in malaria endemic areas will follow in 2017. The required field trial testing could last five years or more before the vaccine is available for licensure and public use, Lanar says.

Martin Edlund, CEO of Malaria No More, a New York-based nonprofit focused on fighting deaths from malaria, says, “This research presents a promising new approach to developing a malaria vaccine. Innovative work such as what’s being done at the University of Connecticut puts us closer than we’ve ever been to ending one of the world’s oldest, costliest, and deadliest diseases.”

A Switzerland-based company, Alpha-O-Peptides, founded by Burkhard, holds the patent on the self-assembling nanoparticle used in the malaria vaccine. Burkhard is also exploring other potential uses for the nanoparticle, including a vaccine that will fight animal flu and one that will help people with nicotine addiction. Professor Mazhar Khan from UConn’s Department of Pathobiology is collaborating with Burkhard on the animal flu vaccine.