Weiping Zhang, professor of microbiology and a researcher with Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has received a five-year, $2.1-million grant from the National Institutes of Health to further his work on developing vaccines for E. coli-associated diarrhea in both humans and animals.

Dr. Zhang and K-State research team
Weiping Zhang (center) and his team are developing E. coli-related vaccines. They are, from left, Carolina Garcia, master’s student in biomedical science; Jiachen Huan, master’s student in biomedical science; Zhang, professor of microbiology; Qiangde Duan, postdoctoral fellow in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, and Ti Lu, doctoral student in pathobiology. (Not pictured are former postdoctoral fellows Rahul Nandre, Xiaosai Ruan and Mei Liu.) (Photo courtesy of Kansas State University)
The grant is Zhang’s third he’s received in three years in the quest for effective vaccines for E. coli-related diarrhea, according to a K-State news releasee. Since 2003, Zhang has been studying ways to fight E. coli with vaccines because diarrhea is a leading cause of death in children younger than five. Also, enterotoxigenic E. coli, or ETEC, is one of the most common bacterial causes of diarrhea in children, he noted. It can be transmitted by food, water or other beverages. “Currently, there are no available vaccines against this type of diarrhea,” Zhang said in a news release. “Whole-cell vaccine candidates have been under development but require further improvements because they provide inadequate protection and produce unwanted adverse effects.” In a September 2015 article published in Clinical and Vaccine Immunology, Zhang laid out the current progress in developing E. coli vaccines. He wrote that while it is “theoretically possible to control or prevent ETEC-associated diarrhea through the installation of effective sanitation systems and country-wide access to clean drinking water,” the likelihood of accomplishing that in the coming decades is not good for low-income countries in South Asia, South America and sub-Saharan Africa because of political and economic factors. “Consequently, vaccination is currently considered the most effective and practical approach to reducing the impact of ETEC diarrhea,” Zhang wrote. “Developing effective ETEC vaccines has become a top priority for the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and other public health institutions.” Most recently, Zhang’s work has focused on multi-epitope fusion antigens, known as MEFA, for the development of broadly protective ETEC vaccines. “Different ETEC strains produce immunologically heterogeneous bacterial adhesins that attach to host cells and colonize in small intestines, initiating ETEC diarrheal disease,” Zhang said. “With the inclusion of an adhesin multi-epitope fusion antigen, in addition to a toxoid fusion antigen, a subunit vaccine is potentially able to induce antibodies against both toxins and up to 15 prevalent ETEC adhesins, effectively protecting against ETEC diarrhea. This grant will allow us to continue our research and study the effectiveness of this approach.” His multi-epitope fusion antigens technology has attracted attention from funding sources such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and was featured in a recent VASE, or Vaccines against Shigella and ETEC, meeting in Washington, D.C. Zhang’s lab team is working on ETEC vaccine projects funded by PATH Vaccine Solution/Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)