Chicago's Wei-Jen Tang receives one of first federal Bioshield awards

May 23, 2005

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded Wei-Jen Tang, PhD, associate professor in the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research at the University of Chicago, more than $440,000 for his efforts to develop therapies to block the action of anthrax edema factor, a toxin that produces severe swelling, tissue damage and death in human cells.

The award was one of 10 grants and two contracts from the NIAID totaling approximately $27 million. These awards fund development of new therapeutics and vaccines against some of the most deadly agents of bioterrorism including anthrax, botulinum toxin, Ebola virus, pneumonic plague, smallpox, and tularemia.

These are the first awards made by NIAID using authorities provided by Project Bioshield, which was signed into law on July 21, 2004. Project Bioshield gives federal agencies new tools to accelerate research on medical countermeasures to safeguard Americans against chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.

This NIAID biodefense research agenda emphasizes the development of new and improved medical products against "Category A" agents--those biological agents considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pose the greatest threat to national security.

"Project Bioshield enables us to expedite research and development of critical medical countermeasures based on promising recent scientific discoveries," says Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of NIAID. "These product development awards, focused on the most serious potential agents of bioterror, will help to rapidly translate laboratory findings into new therapies."

Tang and colleagues--chemist Milan Mrksich and pathologist Chyung-Ru Wang from the University of Chicago, and Craig Gibbs from Gilead Sciences, Inc.--have already made considerable progress in understanding the toxins produced by anthrax and developing drugs to block them.

In 2002, Tang's laboratory reported on the structure of edema factor, which explained how it worked and suggested possible treatments. Since then he and his colleagues have discovered three unrelated compounds that inhibit edema factor or lethal factor, the two toxins that have made anthrax one of the most feared of potential bioterror agents. One of those compounds was a drug already approved to treat hepatitis. Cell culture and animal testing is underway.

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