NIAID launches program to improve medical tools against emerging infectious diseases

November 01, 2004

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded 14 contracts totaling more than $73 million to fund the Large-Scale Antibody and T Cell Epitope Discovery Program, an initiative aimed at quickly identifying the regions of selected infectious agents that elicit immune reactions. The study of these regions, known as epitopes, promises to uncover targets for new and improved vaccines, therapies and diagnostic tools against potential bioterror agents as well as emerging/re-emerging infectious diseases such as West Nile virus and influenza. NIAID will make information on each newly identified epitope freely available to scientists through a searchable online database currently under development.

"Elucidating the basic mechanisms of immune function is a major focus of our biodefense research agenda," says Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of NIAID. "The information generated by this program will deepen our understanding of how components of the immune system defend against certain infectious agents, enabling researchers to design new and improved medical countermeasures."

"Researchers have been conducting epitope discovery for many years, but generally on a small scale," says Daniel Rotrosen, M.D., director of NIAID's Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation. "This initiative, however, will yield new knowledge about antigenic epitopes from a wide variety of microbes, including agents that might be used in a bioterrorist attack."

Epitopes are recognized by the body's B and T cells, white blood cells that detect an invading pathogen. Each B and T cell is specific for a particular antigen, meaning that each can only bind to a certain foreign molecular structure. This "specificity" is determined by the receptors on the surface of each cell.

Both B- and T-cell specificity as well as the diverse functions of these cells determine the effectiveness of an immune response. B cells produce antibodies, which bind to target antigens at their epitopes, eliminating the pathogens before infection can spread or marking them for destruction by other cells. T cells either destroy infected target cells, control inflammation or promote powerful antibody responses.

The Large-Scale Antibody and T Cell Epitope Discovery Program will increase knowledge of antibody and T-cell epitopes, which will facilitate the development of new medical tools to detect, prevent and treat infectious diseases. The institutions involved in the program and the principal investigator at each are Almost all of the institutions will evaluate newly discovered epitopes in preclinical or clinical studies, where feasible, for their capacity to elicit immune responses. For a list of NIAID category A, B and C biodefense pathogens, visit http://www2.niaid.nih.gov/Biodefense/bandc_priority.htm.

NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria and illness from potential agents of bioterrorism. NIAID also supports research on transplantation and immune-related illnesses, including autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies.
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News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.

NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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