Professor granted award for tuberculosis vaccine
By Amelia Rosch, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, March 7, 2013
After over a decade of research, test studies and trips to Finland and Tanzania, Geisel School of Medicine professor Fordham von Reyn’s hard work has paid off. Von Reyn was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease on March 1 for creating a vaccine that reduces tuberculosis in HIV patients.
Scientists have long struggled to find an effective tuberculosis vaccine, said Lisa Adams, a member of von Reyn’s research team and an associate dean at Geisel.
“It’s the first vaccine in about 100 years to be shown to be effective,” she said.
Doctors currently use one tuberculosis vaccine, and it has been used on humans since 1921. That vaccine is around 80 percent effective at protecting people for a 15-year period.
Von Reyn said his vaccine, known as DAR-901, is 40 percent effective in patients with HIV. While the vaccine has not been tested on people without HIV, von Reyn said he expects the vaccine to be more effective in those populations because they do not have a compromised immune system.
“Even if the effectiveness is only 20 percent, it will make a huge difference,” von Reyn said. “We might not use it in the United States, but in Africa, it would make a big difference.”
While von Reyn’s team is not the only group of researchers working on a new tuberculosis cure, they are the closest to creating an effective vaccine, Adams said. Von Reyn’s vaccine is the furthest along in production and effectiveness.
DAR-901 specifically targets people with HIV, who tend to be more susceptible to infectious diseases like tuberculosis. Almost a quarter of deaths among those with HIV are caused by tuberculosis, according to the World Health Organization.
Von Reyn said vaccines are most effective at preventing and treating tuberculosis because the disease can become resistant to drug treatments.
He believes his vaccine is more effective than others currently being developed because it uses over 100 antigens to fight tuberculosis, while most tuberculosis vaccines only use one or two.
The vaccine still is not available to the public, but von Reyn said he expects the vaccine to be licensed and approved for human use by 2020. It has yet to undergo safety tests.
Von Reyn said he was inspired to study HIV/AIDS in Africa after working with the World Health Organization in 1987.
“I saw the impact that tuberculosis had on people with HIV,” von Reyn said. “After the complications with HIV melted away because of new drugs, I wanted to turn my attention back to Africa.”
Von Reyn began his research on the vaccine at Dartmouth in 2000. After a series of human tests in Tanzania in 2008, von Reyn and his team found the vaccine to be effective. In 2010, with help from the nonprofit organization Aeras, von Reyn’s team created enough vaccines for more widespread testing.
Von Reyn is more than a renowned scientist, Adams said.
“He is a kind and gracious human being,” she said. “He cares about everyone, the human population as a whole, his mentees, his students. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor.”
Von Reyn said his achievements would have been impossible without his team, which had a core of six scientists, as well as a support staff of 30 in Tanzania.
He emphasized that a project of this scale could never be a solo effort.