Researchers at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development will collaborate with a team at the New York Blood Center on a five-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, for research and development on a river blindness vaccine.

River blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, is a skin and eye disease transmitted to humans through the bite of a blackfly, which breeds in fast-flowing rivers and streams and increases the risk of blindness to those that live nearby. The disease occurs most commonly in Africa, but also is found in six countries in Latin America and in Yemen.

The grant will support the continuation of the international initiative TOVA – The Onchocerciasis Vaccine for Africa – which was established in 2015 and is comprised of 13 world-renowned scientists and research centers. The mission of TOVA is to develop recombinant protein-based vaccines that will support the efforts to eliminate river blindness in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The overall goal of the study is to advance the development of the Ov-103 and Ov-RAL-2 antigens as components of a vaccine against human onchocerciasis. Through the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, Baylor’s focus, led by Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor, and Dr. Bin Zhan, associate professor of pediatrics, will be in the development of the production process for Ov-103 and Ov-RAL-2 vaccine antigens. Researchers will characterize the vaccine antigens and co-develop vaccine formulations using previously developed quality-control assays.

“The vaccine will fill an urgent gap in the fight against onchocerciasis and will have a strong impact on improving public health in Africa,” Bottazzi said.   

“A vaccine to combat river blindness could greatly accelerate the timetable to eliminate river blindness in Africa, compared to current methods focused only on mass drug administration,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Other collaborators on the project include Dr. Sara Lustigman of the New York Blood Center, Dr. Ben Makepeace of the University of Liverpool and Dr. David Abraham of the Thomas Jefferson University.