Vietnamese-American professor funded to develop Whitmore's disease vaccine

By Minh Nga   June 28, 2021 | 06:59 pm PT
Vietnamese-American professor funded to develop Whitmore's disease vaccine
Professor Tung Hoang (L) works with a member of his research team at the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa. Photo courtesy of the university.
A group of researchers led by a Vietnamese-American professor has been granted $3 million by the U.S. defence department to create a vaccine against melioidosis.

The research team of the University of Hawai'i's School of Life Sciences, led by Professor Tung Hoang, have received a $3-million contract from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the U.S. Department of Defense to create a vaccine against melioidosis, or Whitmore's disease.

The awarding of the contract was announced on the university’s website.

Melioidosis is an infectious disease that spreads to humans through cuts in their skin, consuming contaminated water or inhaling particles containing the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei.

Its symptoms include fever, pneumonia, abscesses and inflammation of the brain and joints. The disease is frequently misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. It is known to cause various types of infection, including pulmonary, localized, bloodstream and disseminated infections, all of which can be fatal. The disease’s mortality rate is 40 percent.

UH researchers have studied Burkholderia pseudomallei for more than 10 years.

They discovered two specific surface proteins that allow the bacterium to attach to human cells for infection. Without these proteins, the bacterium is much less infectious.

These findings were released in a March 2021 study published in Nature Communications.

"This finding was significant because unlike most viruses, which have less than a dozen proteins, bacteria have thousands of different proteins. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack—finding which ones are important for infection and disease, and which ones can be used for an actual vaccine candidate," Hoang was quoted as saying on the university website.

He said his team has used the two proteins to create a vaccine and their study showed 100 percent effectiveness in mice. Unvaccinated mice died within five days, while 100 percent of vaccinated mice survived for at least one month, which was the duration of the study. Based on this finding, they submitted an application to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Whitmore's disease was first diagnosed in Vietnam in 1925, though sufficient knowledge of the illness is still lacking.

Around 10,000 cases are reported worldwide each year, mostly during the rainy season, around half of which prove fatal. There has been no vaccine against the disease so far.

Tung Hoang is a full professor at the Department of Microbiology at the UH. He received his Bachelor of Science Degree in Biochemistry from the University of Calgary, Canada, in 1994.

He earned a thesis-based Master of Science Degree in Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary in 1996. After working for one year, he entered the Ph.D. program at Colorado State University, specializing in Bacterial Genetics, and earned his Ph.D. three years later in early 2000. He has published 13 papers after his Ph.D. and received two years of postdoctoral fellowship support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, and Minister of Fisheries and Oceans of Canada.

He joined the faculty in the Department of Microbiology at UHM, as an Assistant Professor in 2002 and later became a full professor.

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