TUCSON - Cautious optimism is building over the prospect of defeating the respiratory disease known as valley fever, largely because of $40 million in grants that will be used toward vaccine testing.
A measure sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., authorizing a $40 million research grant program toward development of a vaccine for the often-debilitating disorder was approved earlier this month. It was included in a larger tax and health care package that President Bush is expected to sign Wednesday.
Assuming Congress actually appropriates the money, researchers say it boosts confidence that both a preventative vaccine and a medicine that can cure those who've already contracted the illness will be developed within a decade.
Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is a relatively obscure disease caused by inhaling the spores of a fungus found in the U.S. Southwest and northwestern Mexico and California's Central Valley. An estimated 130,000 people are exposed each year, but less than half develop symptoms that lead to diagnosis and only about 10 percent require treatment.
Those sickened by the disease can suffer debilitating lung, bone and neurological illnesses, and deaths are not uncommon. Arizona, with about two-thirds of all cases, reported 33 deaths in 2005.
The legislation has come at a critical time, said Richard Hector of the Valley Fever Vaccine Project at the University of California, San Francisco.
"We are very close to finishing the research component, but now we need to transition into actual pharmaceutical development, which can be expensive, but which is not the type of development that the National Institutes of Health will support," said Hector, the project director. For nearly 10 years, it has been funded principally through about $15 million provided by the state of California.
Researchers are looking at two different classes of vaccines to prevent infection and will soon choose one to move into full development.
Four drugs are now used to treat valley fever but none kills the fungus. Most people recover on their own but the fungus remains in the body and illness can recur.
The University of Arizona acquired a drug called nikkomycin z in 2005 from a bankrupt manufacturer that shows promise in killing the valley fever fungus, said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence, co-sponsored by the University of Arizona and the Southern Arizona VA Healthcare System. It kills the fungus in mice and has been through an initial safety trial in humans.
Galgiani hopes to conduct a second-phase safety trial next summer, using nearly $1 million received from the National Institutes of Health. If successful, a full trial could follow.
Thomas had already secured $900,000 for valley fever vaccine research and development in 2003 and 2005. Kern County, in the center of Thomas' district, is a hot spot for the disease.
If appropriated, the $40 million in grants likely would be stretched out over a period of years, focusing on vaccine research.
Sandra Larson, executive director of the Valley Fever Americas Foundation, in the Bakersfield, Calif., area, said that the grants would be allocated for the most deserving research. The grants would be coordinated to achieve the greatest progress as quickly as possible.
Most valley fever cases occur in Arizona, with about 3,500 cases diagnosed in 2005 and more than 5,000 cases likely in 2006, said Will Humble, bureau chief for infectious diseases with the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Despite that, Arizona has not appropriated any money for the research consortium. Humble's staff is working with the Valley Fever Center for Excellence in Tucson to try to find a manufacturer for nikkomycin z.
A small amount of state money has gone to training doctors to diagnose valley fever, and the Arizona Legislature may be asked to help with funding, Humble said.
In addition to California, Arizona and northern Mexico, valley fever is found in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Texas.