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University Relations

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Feb. 10, 2009
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU drug lab targets illness that takes lives of children worldwide

LAWRENCE — Every hour, 22 people die of measles, mainly in impoverished nations. What’s worse is that the disease is especially lethal to kids.

But because measles is a well-controlled illness in wealthier countries, many people don’t realize its lethality in less developed nations.

“It’s funny, when I told my mom that I was working on measles, she said, ‘I remember getting you vaccinated for that. No one’s had measles since I was a kid,’ ” said University of Kansas graduate student Julian Kissmann.

Kissmann recently spearheaded research at KU to formulate a more durable form of the measles vaccine. The work was funded by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health though the Grand Challenges in Global Health project, an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“It’s true we have an excellent vaccine here in the United States,” Kissmann said. “But it’s extremely unstable, especially to temperature. In undeveloped counties — where it’s hard to find a refrigerator — measles is still a problem because it’s hard to effectively deliver the vaccine.”

Kissmann conducted the measles research under the supervision of Russell Middaugh, the Takeru and Aya Higuchi Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at KU — a man uniquely qualified to oversee work on such a vaccine. Before joining the KU faculty, Middaugh was the director of vaccine formulation and delivery with the pharmaceutical giant Merck, where he helped to create the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella that is most commonly used in the United States today.

“Russ has got a lot of experience with the disease and in general with formulating of vaccines,” Kissmann said. “That’s why I’m here as a student and I think that’s why he was recognized as someone who could help with this new vaccine formulation.”

Middaugh’s lab, known as the Laboratory for Macromolecular and Vaccine Stabilization, bristles with cutting-edge technology. Housed in the Multidisciplinary Research Building on KU’s west campus, the lab is packed with powerful computers and instrumentation — such as mass spectrometers — that researchers used to gauge how the measles virus responded to various stresses, ranging from temperature to light exposure.

The goal of the ongoing work is to manufacture a vaccine that stands up better to the rigors of the Third World. Perhaps, even, the work may lead to a vaccine that could be given without a shot.

“The hope is to develop an inhalable, dry powder version of the vaccine which would be a benefit for many reasons, not the least of which is that because children are the ones who seem to suffer the most from this disease,” said Kissmann. “If we are able to administer the vaccine through an inhaler rather than a needle, I think we’d be much better off in terms of compliance and happiness.”

Innovation of this kind is what makes the research group an appealing partner for a slew of drug corporations. For example, the measles work is a collaboration with a Boulder, Colo.-based firm that specializes in production of dry inhalable powders, Aktiv-Dry LLC. Indeed, the list of drug companies that work with the lab reads like a who’s who of the pharmaceutical industry and includes Wyeth, Merck, Sanofi-Pasteur and Schering-Plough.

But the lab’s researchers say the most fulfilling aspect of their jobs is teaming up with nonprofits to tackle scientific dilemmas affecting the world’s poorest people. In addition to its investigation into measles for the Gates foundation, Middaugh’s team of researchers has worked on respiratory syncytial viral vaccine, adenoviral vaccine, valley fever vaccine and measles for the Thrasher foundation. Also, the lab has initiated a vaccine formulation effort with the Leukemia and Lymphoma society on an Epstein Barr virus vaccine.

“Russ has I think crated a really nice marriage between industry and academia in this lab,” said Kissmann. ”We collaborate with a lot of outside institutions and pharmaceutical companies. But we set up our collaborations in such a way that we often get to address significant scientific questions as well.”


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