Ted Ross, Ph.D.
Vaccines and Viral Immunity
The University of Georgia
Ted Ross is working to develop a universal vaccine for flu, one that would provide immunity to many flu strains – even those that don't yet exist.
Vaccines work by training the immune system to recognize a particular virus and respond defensively. The immune system develops “antibodies” designed to attack the offending germs. But in the case of a shape-shifting virus like influenza, the antibodies don’t necessarily recognize new incarnations, and so the immune system must build its defenses all over again.
To combat this phenomenon, Ross and his team created a method called COBRA — “computationally optimized broadly reactive antigen.” Developed in Ross' lab in 2005, the technology is now licensed by vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur.
COBRA is a new way of designing vaccines that draws on the capabilities of computer modeling. The researchers map the characteristics of existing flu strains; COBRA then analyzes these characteristics to project out new and possible strains.
Ross and his colleagues go through multiple rounds of projections, searching for commonalities. Certain virus structures show up again and again, so the lab retains these for use in the final vaccine. Eventually, a consensus emerges, driven by both technological processing power and human expertise.
Armed with a picture of many projected strains, Ross then works to create a synthetic version of the virus that incorporates these possibilities. Since the immune system recognizes viruses by the unique structures on the surface of each molecule, a single synthetic molecule that incorporates the characteristics of the many projected strains would be a powerful weapon.
Thus, Ross’ lab is aiming to create this “virus-like” synthetic molecule. On the outside, it’s identical to a particle of the virus, but it doesn’t actually carry any infectious material. But to the immune system, it looks like a virus — so the body gets to work making antibodies and developing immunity to the disease.
Ross and his colleagues have already used the COBRA technique to develop a universal vaccine for avian flu, also known as H5N1 or bird flu. They’re now working with the USDA on clinical trials to test the vaccine on birds. For the seasonal flu that typically affects humans, he has successfully completed mouse trials and will soon be conducting clinical trials to test the vaccine's efficacy on human patients.
If early results from such trials are promising, a next step would be to improve the longevity of vaccine immunity, so that an annual shot is no longer necessary.
The COBRA technique is also proving beneficial in developing effective vaccines for dengue and chikungunya virus, both infectious diseases spread by mosquitoes; Ross and his colleagues are seeing positive results here, too. In the long term, computational modeling like COBRA could even help create vaccines for diseases like Ebola or HIV.
- Developing COBRA (computationally optimized broadly reactive antigen) technology to design vaccine candidates for influenza viruses, dengue viruses, and HIV
- Development of DNA, recombinant protein and virus-like particle vaccines for seasonal influenza, HIV/SIV/SHIV, dengue virus, West Nile virus, and others
- Pioneering the use of C3d, a component of the innate immune system, as a molecule adjuvant for DNA vaccine produced adjuvants
- Demonstration of a COBRA influenza vaccine’s protection against H5N1 in non-human primates
- Ongoing investigation into how seasonal influenza strains elicit antibodies against pandemic influenza strains, offering pre-existing immunity over time
Straight from the Scholar
I like that we have this interactive team of researchers here. It’s and up-and-coming area, and there is a great commitment at UGA to pursuing research on infectious diseases and developing life-saving vaccines. I am also looking forward to collaborating with other vaccine research centers in Georgia and advancing joint projects with nearby institutions like Emory.