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  August 30, 2004

Conference Draws Leading
Vaccine Research Experts To UConn

Many of the nation's leading scientists conducting research on pathogenic viruses and bacterial agents that could devastate the U.S. livestock and poultry industries with a single outbreak, gathered in Storrs last week for their annual Vaccine Conference.

Organized by UConn's Center of Excellence for Vaccine Research (CEVR) and conference co-sponsors, the University of Missouri, Texas A&M University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, participants focused on the latest research for the detection and prevention of animal infectious diseases.

Speakers led seminars on topics ranging from how mycoplasmas cause diseases to the genetic makeup of these pathogenic bacteria; alternative vaccine approaches for combating the diseases; and rapid and sensitive diagnostic tests.

"This group includes many of the best and the brightest scientists working in this research area," said Steven Geary, a professor of pathobiology and director of CEVR. "The potential threat from foreign animal diseases gives great urgency for the development of new vaccines and diagnostic tests to respond to a crisis, should one develop."

The conference comes at a critical juncture. Scientists at UConn's CEVR, the University of Missouri's Program for the Prevention of Animal Infectious Diseases, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plum Island Animal Disease Center are in the fifth year of a collaborative research program developing new technologies to eliminate diseases of cattle, poultry, and swine. Last month the consortium was granted $3.4 million in federal funding to further these research objectives.

Meanwhile, bioterrorism and the events of Sept. 11 have made security of the nation's food supply a priority for the Department of Homeland Security. In April, the department announced that Texas A&M will lead the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease defense, concentrating on potential threats to animal agriculture including foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza.

The charge to the new national center is to establish an integrated network of university-based centers tapping the nation's scientific and technological resources to provide technologies and capabilities to protect the homeland.

"The United States is currently free of these diseases and any vaccine advances will improve our ability to respond to a foreign animal disease crisis," said Garry Adams, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Texas A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine, who participated in the conference in Storrs.

UConn's Geary said the Department of Homeland Security and the new center at Texas A&M are very interested in the consortium, "because of our capabilities of working with infectious diseases foreign to the U.S."

Currently, testing of Mycoplasma mycoides sc and foot-and-mouth disease virus may only be performed at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Long Island Sound, a high security biocontainment facility. The research at Plum Island is focused on developing vaccines and diagnostic techniques that can differentiate between a vaccinated and an infected animal, and can be used safely on farms.

Scientists at UConn's vaccine research center are looking at how Mycoplasma mycoides sc causes the disease and developing rapid means of detection.

"There is a synergy between the consortium's research programs that would fit well with the overall agro-security aims of the new center," Geary said, adding that "due to the restricted nature of these infectious agents, our consortium is uniquely positioned to conduct this research."