Valley fever vaccine in the works thanks to researchers at NAU, University of Washington

A joint research effort between NAU and University of Washington researchers is aiming to create the vaccine.
Published: Nov. 30, 2022 at 5:54 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- We are seeing a huge spike in Valley fever cases, now the most common non-COVID infectious disease in Arizona. Some people don’t even notice the symptoms, while it’s debilitating for others. However, researchers are making major progress on a vaccine. “It would be a game-changer for a lot of people,” said Dr. Bridget Mari Barker with the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at NAU.

A new joint research effort between Northern Arizona University and the University of Washington is aiming to create a vaccine for valley fever. “People really don’t get cured for the current treatments that we have,” Barker said.

Barker says the disease is caused by a desert fungus getting kicked up in the air. The infection starts in the lungs and causes severe illness and even death in humans and pets alike. “It can disseminate. So that means it moves from the lung which is the primary target of the infection, it can move beyond the lung to other tissues. And it can move to any kind of tissue in the body. The most extreme is the brain,” Barker said.

Right now, there are no vaccines for any fungal infection. So if they succeed, epidemiologist Dr. Deborah Fuller at UW says they could help not just valley fever but other infections. “The nice thing about DNA and RNA vaccines is that we can very effectively customize these vaccines to skew an immune response or design an immune response in a way that will very closely replicate what we exactly need to provide protection,” Fuller said.

This summer, the team received a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and infectious diseases and could earn much more. “It’s a five year project so we have to prove we are making progress each year,” Barker said.

Many vaccines take years to create, but with the mRNA vaccine ground-work from the COVID vaccines, this team is confident their goal can be achieved. “I’m actually really hopeful that by the end of this five years we would have a candidate vaccine that would be ready for clinical trials,” Barker said.

On average, about 200 people a year die from Valley Fever. Often, it takes multiple doctor visits before getting the right diagnosis. These researchers hope to expand testing efforts and educate on symptoms.