Collaborative Works Leads to Food Borne Illness Vaccine

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From the Partnership for Public Service

Monday, August 24, 2009; 7:55 AM

After a quarter century of research, Navy scientist Patricia Guerry has made ground-breaking discoveries that could lead to the first vaccine for a food borne intestinal illness that affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide each year.

An effective vaccine could reduce the scope of an illness that causes severe diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, headaches and joint pain. It also could potentially save tens of thousands of young lives in developing countries where the pathogen has proved deadly.

The vaccine candidate against the pathogen Campylobacter jejuni, developed by Guerry, her colleagues at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring and Canadian scientist Mario Monteiro, successfully protected against infection in monkeys during testing last year and is slated for human clinical trials.

Campylobacter is the leading cause of global food borne illness. The pathogen is responsible for more than two million cases in the United States and several hundred million worldwide, each year. The infection can be difficult to treat because of widespread antibiotic resistance.

"Her breakthroughs have been innovative and had a major impact on biomedicine," Trevor Trust said, vice president of research for the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

The Campylobacter infection was discovered in the late 1970s, but many researchers found it too difficult to understand and stopped studying it because the pathogen was impervious to genetic manipulation.

Guerry, a molecular microbiologist, began her work in the 1980s and over time created new research tools that allowed her to identify the pathogen's unique genetic, biochemical and structural features. This led to the development of a vaccine that neutralizes the bacteria's ability to attach to the intestinal lining.

Prior to her work, scientists did not believe that bacteria could produce sugars within proteins. Guerry discovered that Campylobacter had sugar on its surface, which is what made it so difficult to combat but provided the basis for the vaccine.

"When Campylobacter was first discovered, nobody really knew anything about it. After I began researching it, the Defense Department mandated that I figure it out for our troops," Guerry said.

The Naval Medical Research Center's stated mission is to enhance the health, safety, performance and deployment readiness of Navy and Marine Corps personnel. The vaccine could have major implications in alleviating suffering for troops overseas, who are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning.

"In solving the problem for the military, she is also helping Third World nations as Campylobacter is a leading cause of food borne illness in children in underdeveloped countries," Capt. Christopher Daniel, the commanding officer of Guerry's lab at the Naval Medical Research Center, said.

Alison O'Brien, president of the American Society for Microbiology, called Guerry "the number one researcher on Campylobacter in the United States, if not the world."

"She has an analytical mind. When she makes a discovery, she will re-test and go to great lengths to prove her discovery is correct," O'Brien said. "Second, she's ethical. She has extreme concerns about the vaccine having an adverse reaction in humans and has garnered the respect of her colleagues for the measure she takes to assure her work is done only to make lives better."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Visit for more about the organization's work.


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