LAWRENCE — This summer, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry William Picking and Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry Wendy Picking arrived at the University of Kansas to establish the Kansas Vaccine Institute within the School of Pharmacy. Their mission: to fight pathogens overlooked by other research and boost human and animal health around the globe.
Since returning to campus, where the married scientists first met as students on a softball field, they’ve focused on two micro-organisms that infect the human digestive system: shigella and salmonella. These pathogens kill millions of children in poor countries where antibiotics are too expensive for many people.
“Shigella is a leading cause of mortality and morbidity in kids between two and five years old in the developing world,” said Wendy Picking, who takes a lead research role at the new institute and serves as its associate director. “Shigella flexneri is the primary cause of dysentery in many countries where there’s no clean water. In war-torn areas of Asia and Africa, often there’s more corruption than infrastructure. If you can get your young child with diarrhea to the hospital, they don’t just hand you antibiotics — they give out what’s called oral rehydration that costs about a quarter. But often parents don’t even have a quarter to spend.”
Institute director William Picking said the shigella vaccine should enter Phase I clinical trials in 2015 to gauge its effectiveness, pinpoint suitable dosages and detect possible side effects. He said the process of commercializing the basic research to bring a vaccine to those in need showcases the “benchtop-to-bedside” process the KVI was created to expedite.
Beyond work on shigella, a vaccine to combat salmonella will be the first developed under the Pickings within the KVI, with partial KU ownership of the resulting patents. The pathogen is linked to foodborne illness in the U.S., and infects water supplies in the developing world, sickening about 3 billion people and killing 200,000 every year.
“The salmonella vaccine that Wendy is creating is going to be half-owned by KU,” said William Picking. “We have four or five other vaccines in the works that will follow, which will be owned by KU entirely.”
The KVI’s salmonella research also heralds the Pickings’ intent to develop inoculations to benefit the vital agricultural industry in and around Kansas.
“Most of the time, we think of salmonella as affecting people, but there’s a whole laundry list of salmonella subspecies that cause infections in animals,” said Wendy Picking. “With feedlot cattle, you don’t see the gastroenteritis form of the salmonella disease, because it likes to hide in the lymph nodes. But when you take an animal to slaughter and it’s found in the lymph nodes, it could decimate a feedlot. Some groups are trying to get the USDA to cull the entire herd when this is found. It’s the same with pigs.”
According to the KVI researchers, a salmonella vaccine could lower use of antibiotics in feedlots in Western Kansas and keep animals healthy all the way to the marketplace. William Picking said he expected animal-health vaccines developed at the KVI would create jobs at area firms and benefit Kansas farmers, ranchers and processors of livestock. “This region is responsible for 75 percent of all animal health sales in the world,” he said.
Another KVI project involves work with a Kansas City-based group to develop and market a vaccine to protect against Burkholderia, a pathogen classified as a bioterrorism threat by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A Burkholderia inoculation is just one of several planned projects the KVI researchers said would enhance U.S. national security.
“Some of our research could protect soldiers at Fort Riley, for instance, from bioterrorist agents,” said William Picking. He said the KVI hopes to team with the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas, to advance vaccines to shield the nation from a terrorist attack.
As native Kansans, the Pickings also aim to enhance the well-being of the state’s children. Their mission at the KVI includes promoting benefits of childhood vaccination, especially in the face of misinformation that lately has some well-intentioned parents leaving children vulnerable to preventable illness.
“A recent article in the Lawrence paper reported less than 50 percent of school kids right here in Douglas County aren’t properly vaccinated,” William Picking said. “There’s growing suspicion of the good that vaccines do, and part of the reason for that is perhaps that vaccines are too effective. Nobody’s worried about whooping cough, diphtheria and measles anymore. We’re going to reach out to educate Kansans about the importance of vaccinations. People are worried about mercury. Today, not a single childhood vaccine in this county contains thimerosal or mercury.”
Key partners for the KVI at KU include the Macromolecule and Vaccine Stabilization Center, Higuchi Bioscience Center, Structural Biology Center and KU Medical Center, where the researchers plan to run clinical trials. Regionally, the KVI is partnering with Kansas State University (particularly the KSU College of Veterinary Medicine) and the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute. The KVI also will work closely with the National Institutes of Health and international nonprofit organizations tackling health issues in the developing world.
“Kansas will be a real leader in human and animal vaccine development,” said Wendy Picking. “We want to make a positive change worldwide.”