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Craig McEwen, Published February 28 2009

Vaccine development ‘win-win-win situation’

Concordia program ties in with area’s growth plan

A lab full of Concordia College research students is helping develop vaccines to cure tropical diseases such as hookworm.

Several of them want to become doctors. Some hope to return to their home countries, including Guyana, Nigeria, and Morocco, to practice medicine.

They are enrolled in Concordia’s 1½-year-old Global Vaccine Institute, an extension of a research program the college launched in 2000, said Jennifer Bath, the institute’s director.

The institute’s purpose is to conduct research and pre-clinical vaccine development, she said.

That fits right into the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp.’s goal of bringing higher-paying jobs to Cass and Clay counties.

Vaccine development is one of the emerging technologies being targeted by the development corporation’s growth plan, said Brian Walters, president.

The development corporation recently pledged $10,000 to the institute to pay stipends to 10 research students.

“Given our region’s higher education and business capabilities, we feel we can compete for and win economic development opportunities in vaccine development,” Walters said.

The Global Vaccine Institute offers mutual benefits for students and local companies, said Pam Jolicoeur, Concordia College president.

“I am pleased that this grant will enable our students to use their research experience to contribute to a critical need,” Jolicoeur said. “That, in turn, contributes to developing the economic infrastructure of the greater Fargo-Moorhead area. I think that makes this a win-win-win situation for us.”

A day in the lab

One by one, students stroll into a morning lab session at the Global Vaccine Institute in Concordia’s Jones Science Building.

“We’re working on parasitic infections,” Erin Maetzold said.

“We’ve isolated a protein so far,” said Maetzold, a junior biology major from Dickinson, N.D. “We’re trying to block the protein or fight it off.”

Maetzold, one of 12 students enrolled in the institute, eventually wants to earn a doctorate degree in immunology, she said.

So far, about 40 students representing 10 countries have enrolled in the hookworm research project since 2000, Bath said.

The institute works with a variety of tropical diseases, she said, including onchocerciasis and elphantiasis.

Onchocerciasis, often called river blindness, is a parasitic disease that affects many organs.

Found in 38 countries, it is often acquired at the breeding sites of the black fly vector.

Elphantiasis is the extreme enlargement of limbs and other parts of the body caused by blockage in lymph, Bath said.

“The nature of the research we do seems to draw people from different backgrounds,” she said. “We actually do our own drug design.”

Tori Jordan, a senior from Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Jihane Bousfiha, a junior from Morocco, recently teamed up to purify a protein.

Both want to be doctors.

Most students are majoring in biology or chemistry. Five are premedicine students and the rest are seeking doctorate degrees, Bath said.

“There’s a lot of support for vaccine technology in the region,” she said, with companies such as Fargo-based Cetero Research, formerly PRACS Institute, and Aldevron offering student internships.

“Both of those companies have been wonderful that way,” she said.

Some student research has been published. “All 12 students have presented their data at regional and national conferences,” Bath said.

The Global Vaccine Institute is where Nigerian student Peace Eneh hopes to develop her career path.

“I want to go to medical school,” said the sophomore biology major, whose goal is to become a cardiologist and work in biomedical research and vaccine development.

“I hope to go home someday,” Eneh said. “I want to do something here first. I hope to collaborate with organizations over here to help end poverty and diseases in Africa.”

Readers can reach Forum Business Editor Craig McEwen at (701) 241-5502