The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded VCU researcher and professor Richard T. Marconi, Ph.D., over half a million dollars for his unwavering work in finding a vaccine for Lyme disease.
Marconi, who works at the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, received a $510,000, one-year grant. The grant is part of the National Institutes of Health ongoing effort to develop a human vaccine for Lyme disease.
“My lab has been quite well funded for the last 20 years,” Marconi said. “But we are really excited about this particular grant and where things are going in terms of our research direction.”
Lyme disease is a tick-borne affliction that has dramatically increased over the past decade. According to Marconi, most of the cases have occurred in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
In 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 95 percent of confirmed Lyme disease cases were reported from 14 states, including Virginia.
“Ultimately, prevention is critical,” Marconi said. “Coupled with the ability to diagnose it early on, this is the key to controlling the Lyme disease problem.”
Marconi began studying Lyme disease during his time at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, one of the premier facilities to study tick-borne diseases. There, he decided to go into a second postdoctoral training stent. His work with Lyme disease has continued until today.
First, Marconi was on a research team that developed VANGUARD® crLyme, a vaccine that combats Lyme disease in canines.
Marconi said what he learned from developing the vaccine for dogs allowed him to pursue a vaccine for human use.
In order to develop the human vaccine, Marconi’s lab focuses on two different areas: vaccine development and tests for diagnosis.
“What’s exciting about what we have been doing is that we have essentially created a new technology we are applying for both of those purposes,” Marconi said. “The name of that technology is chimeritope technology.”
What’s unique about chimeritope technology, according to Marconi, is that his lab has created a brand new protein. The protein is constructed of various proteins found in the human body and detects antibodies in the blood of a person exposed to Lyme disease.
Marconi said that the the inherent challenge with diagnosing Lyme disease is that the bacteria is remarkably diverse. Bacteria that might infect people in the United States can differ from one human to another in terms of the protein they are producing.
“If you don’t pick the right proteins to use in a diagnostics test you will end up with a false-negative test,” Marconi said. “We overcame that problem by taking pieces of many different proteins and assembling them into a new protein that isn’t derived from the bacteria itself, but one we have created.”
The human vaccine is currently under development in Marconi’s lab.