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DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke Medicine has been named a Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit (VTEU) by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, to evaluate vaccines, treatments and diagnostics to protect people from infectious diseases, including emerging public health needs.

Duke was the only new site named since 2007 to the existing group of eight VTEUs. Each institution has the potential to receive funding estimated to be up to $135 million annually over a seven-year period.

Duke’s VTEU research will be administered through the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI), already a leader in the fight against major infectious diseases, with programs at the vanguard of developing vaccines for HIV, flu, tuberculosis, dengue and others. The Duke VTEU brings together a consortium of Duke investigators with extensive clinical and scientific vaccine expertise.

“If you look at the top public health achievements of the past century, immunization is clearly among them. Here in the United States, nearly every vaccine-preventable disease has markedly declined or in some cases been eliminated,” said Emmanuel “Chip” Walter, M.D., MPH, professor of pediatrics and principal investigator of Duke’s VTEU.

“For some pathogens – such as whooping cough and flu – we have vaccines. But we must continue to further understand vaccine immune response and develop better vaccines,” Walter said. “Plus, we have no vaccines for a host of other pathogens that we need to protect against. So there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Established in 1962, the VTEUs have been instrumental in the development of new vaccines, including the infant pneumococcal vaccine. They have also tested innovative ways to deliver protection from infectious diseases, including a nasal spray alternative to the flu shot. VTEUs are also beginning to play a growing role in testing treatments for viral infections and improving diagnostic tools.

A key strength of VTEUs is their ability to enroll large numbers of participants in clinical trials to rapidly test vaccines in public health emergencies such as pandemic flu. Researchers can quickly gather and share information on vaccine safety and effectiveness, which is critical during pandemic situations.

Duke’s research in vaccines spans all ages, from infants to older adults, with unique expertise in evaluating vaccine use among pregnant women to determine safety and efficacy. The health system’s international reach enables researchers to conduct vaccine research on a global scale through the Duke Global Health Institute and other partnerships, including with FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization involved in public health initiatives, and the Naval Medical Research Center.

The VTEU designation builds on a model of successful vaccine research at Duke led by the DHVI, which was formed in 1990 to support vaccine research and development across many disciplines at Duke. Known for its groundbreaking work researching vaccines for HIV, Duke’s vaccine institute was awarded a Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology and Immunogen Discovery (CHAVI-ID) grant in 2012 to provide oversight of as much as $189 million in federal research funds.

That experience administering large research programs was a key component of Duke’s application toward VTEU designation, which will focus efforts on vaccine development in diseases other than HIV. Additional DHVI assets include laboratory resources – with state-of-the-art immune monitoring capabilities, quality assessment expertise, and a biocontainment laboratory – that will advance VTEU research.

“This is a great step forward for Duke’s efforts in vaccine development for a number of infectious diseases of great concern to society,” said Barton Haynes, M.D., director of the DHVI. “Duke investigators, led by Chip Walter, will now be at the forefront of yet another important human vaccine development project. We are proud of Dr. Walter’s leadership.”

Prior to being named a VTEU, Duke worked closely with existing VTEUs to collaborate on clinical trials.

For example, Duke was involved in pivotal vaccine trials during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, which helped guide recommendations on the vaccine’s safety, dosing and timing of administration. Several years earlier, Duke contributed to clinical trials to help bring a new flu vaccine option to market during a vaccine shortage.

“There are a lot of existing resources at Duke that could be leveraged for the VTEU,” said Walter. “This is an opportunity to apply things we’ve learned in the areas of vaccine development in HIV to other infections.”

Other VTEU sites are Baylor College of Medicine, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Emory University, Saint Louis University, Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, University of Iowa, University of Maryland in Baltimore and Vanderbilt University.

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