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Virus research earns Jacobs top honors


December 06, 2006

Biodesign Institute virologist Bert Jacobs was named the recipient of the Innovator of the Year Award for Academia at the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation Awards, which took place before a packed house Dec. 5 at the Point South Mountain Resort.

“I’m a professor and am usually not at a loss for words, but this is pretty amazing,” said Jacobs, upon accepting the award.

Jacobs dedicated the honor to his two daughters, who were present at the event, for “putting up with the weird hours that a scientist has to keep”; his 20-member research group, which includes assistant research professors Karen Kibler, Jeff Langland and enthusiastic undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral researchers; and his friends in Africa, who live with the specter of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) on a daily basis.

“I feel honored that we have the possibility of making a difference there,” he said, “and if we don’t do it, I hope it will be somebody else soon.”

Jacobs is one of the world’s foremost experts on a pox virus called vaccinia, a cousin of the smallpox virus. Vaccinia virus, first was used to wipe out the deadly scourge of smallpox.

He has been awarded more than $3 million in federal research funding for projects that include producing a safer smallpox vaccine and a post-exposure vaccine in the case of a bioterrorism incident.

“Certainly one aspect of the research we are doing is making a better, safer smallpox vaccine,” says Jacobs, whose group is part of the institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology. “But as we started getting information on how to make better smallpox vaccines, we thought the vaccinia virus was also a really great vector for vaccinating against a variety of different things.”

It was during this time that Jacobs realized his research could have an even broader human health impact. He has genetically engineered vaccinia as a vehicle against a number of infectious agents, bioterrorism threats, cancer and viruses such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Jacobs recently received a $900,000 award as part of an international $15.3 million effort, funded by the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation, to use vaccinia virus to create a new vaccine to combat AIDS.

“We think we’ve developed a vaccine vector that will give a better immune response than anything we’ve had before, and now we’re going to put HIV genes in there and hope it gives a better immune response to HIV than anything else that has been tried before,” Jacobs says.

Because of the importance of his efforts for national security, Jacobs’ work has been on a fast track, with the studies projected to yield a usable vaccine virus against smallpox in the coming year. At that point, the virus will go to a commercial manufacturer, who will be responsible for developing and then producing a complete nasal-delivery vaccine. A large number of doses then would be produced and put into storage for possible use in case of emergency, in accordance with the procedures of Project Bioshield, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Jacobs’ research team is able to create a vaccine that can cure smallpox infections in their early stages, but it also could provide a powerful tool for fighting a host of other viral pathogens, including the new project directed at HIV. Genes from hard-to-treat viruses such as HIV could potentially be added to the mutant vaccinia virus, which would draw the immune system’s attention to the target virus’s proteins, thus creating a strong immune response to the virus of interest. Such a method could provide effective protection from some of humankind’s most challenging viral enemies.

Several patents on the vaccinia virus vector technology were issued in 2005 and 2006 through Arizona Technology Enterprises, the technology transfer entity of ASU that also was selected as a finalist for this year’s academia innovation award.

“As a researcher, Bert Jacob’s canon of work embodies many of the Biodesign Institute’s core themes of improving human health, public health and aiding national security efforts,” says George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute. “It is a great pleasure to see his research group’s outstanding efforts being recognized by the Arizona Technology Council.”

Jacobs has been just as dedicated in the classroom. Jacobs, who has more than 20 years of experience at ASU as a professor in the School of Life Sciences, has been a past nominee as an ASU Professor of the Year. In addition, he leads a group of students every year to sub-Saharan Africa in June to teach AIDS prevention and education efforts to the international community.

The 2006 finalists mark the latest round of distinction from the Arizona Technology Council. The 2006 honor represents the third year in a row that ASU has been a finalist for the Innovation Award for Academia.

In 2005, the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology won the award for a multipronged research effort to prevent HIV infection.

In 2004, the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) also was bestowed with top honors for their iCARE research project, which has developed several projects to help people who are visually impaired recognize text, people and environments.

Joe Caspermeyer, joseph.caspermeyer@asu.edu
(480) 727-0369