NIH Awards $4.8 Million to University to Fight Potentially Fatal Fungal Infection


The National Institutes of Health has awarded a 4-year, $4.8 million grant to the University of Arizona to speed up the development of delta-CPS1, a vaccine candidate to fight valley fever.

Common in the southwestern United States, primarily in Arizona and California, coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever, is responsible for a staggering 50,000 illnesses and over 150 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, now, this potentially fatal fungal lung infection may soon be preventable.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have recently awarded the University of Arizona College of Medicine (UA) a $4.8 million, 4-year grant to continue development of vaccine candidate delta-CPS1 and bring it to market.

The live vaccine was invented by Marc Orbach, PhD, a fungal geneticist at UA. While delta-CPS1 has been tested in mice successfully, the vaccine has yet to be tested in dogs.

In a press release, John Galgiani, MD, director of the UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence and principal investigator of the NIH grant, postulates that it’s a strategic decision to develop the vaccine for dogs first. “We will see if it’s harmful for dogs, see if it works,” he explained. “It will make the momentum to go to humans that much stronger.”

There is currently no way to prevent or cure valley fever. Dangerous and potentially deadly, the infection can be contracted easily, by inhaling dust containing Coccidioides microspores.

Valley fever infections in humans are similar to that of infections in pets, but is not zoonotic. Once transmitted, it can take two forms: primary and disseminated. Primary disease is focused within the lungs. Signs and symptoms in humans and pets include coughing, fever, lack of appetite, lethargy, weight loss, and depression; humans may also experience rash, chest pain, night sweats, muscle aches, and headaches. In disseminated disease, infection spreads from the lungs to other parts of the body, most commonly the bones and joints; lameness often ensues.

In humans, symptoms may last for months but usually resolve on their own. However, some individuals go on to develop more serious disease. Arizona officials noted that valley fever contributed to the deaths of 54 individuals in the state last year.

Valley fever can be deadly in dogs that have a weak immune system, such as young puppies, older dogs, and dogs suffering from concurrent illness. Dogs are highly susceptible to valley fever most likely because they sniff the ground and dig in dirt, potentially inhaling large numbers of infection spores.

For dogs diagnosed with valley fever, lengthy treatment with antifungal medications is required depending on the severity of the infection. Usually daily treatment is required for 6 to 12 months at a cost of $4 to $4 per day. If the fungus reaches the nervous system, dogs may need to remain on the medication for their entire lives. Many dogs that become infected are euthanized due to the high cost and length of the current treatment options, as well as the expensive blood tests and veterinary costs.

Lisa Shubitz, DVM, a research scientist at the UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence who is part of the vaccine development team, has seen the effects of canine valley fever on many of her patients, as well as her own dogs. “[The grant] should drive us a long way,” she said. “I am ecstatic and this is exactly the kind of funding we needed to get this ready for clinical trials in dogs.”

Anivive Lifesciences Inc., a California-based biotechnology company, has licensed the vaccine from UA and will provide additional investment and expertise to fully develop the canine vaccine.

Following development and testing, the canine vaccine will need to go through the US Department of Agriculture Center for Veterinary Biologics to get to market. According to Dr. Galgiani, delta-CPS1 could hit the market as soon as 5 years from now. The human version of the vaccine, which will require approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, will take a bit longer.

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