Professor delivers DNA vaccines into fish
The University of Rhode Island celebrated excellence on May 17. Hosted by URI President David Dooley, the event honored 12 individuals and three intellectual property teams – among them was islander Marta Gomez-Chiarri.
Gomez-Chiarri won an Intellectual Property Patent Award for her work with David R. Nelson of Wakefield. The two researchers are on the faculty of the College of Environmental and Life Sciences. They were awarded for receiving a patent for delivery of DNA vaccines into fish by immersion.
According to the university, “The URI invention contributes to the sustainable growth of the fish farming industry by providing the means to reduce the impact of infectious diseases through the development of an economical method of delivery for a specific type of vaccines.”
Gomez-Chiarri was born in Madrid, Spain, and grew up in the Galicia region in the northwest part of the country. She returned to Madrid to get her bachelor’s degree. While there, she also earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology. Back in the states, she attended Stanford University on a NATO postdoctoral fellowship and worked on marine biotechnology. After more than four years in California, she took a job as an associate professor at URI in 1997.
For her first two years in Rhode Island, Gomez-Chiarri lived close to campus. In 1999, she bought a house in Jamestown. It was actually her mother who is responsible for suggesting that the professor live on Conanicut Island. “She took my car and went to Newport. When she came back she said, ‘I know where you’re going to want to live.’”
Vaccines, which are the best method of fighting disease in finfi sh, are critical to the aquaculture industry. They are inexpensive to produce and effective, particularly in regard to viral diseases. No DNA vaccines for aquaculture have been made commercially available because up until now, the only way to deliver the vaccines is by injection, which is not feasible for small fish, and expensive for large fish. Gomez-Chiarri’s research has the potential to change all of that.
In the patented process, the vaccines are introduced into bacteria, which then finds its way into the fish. This can be done by placing the bacteria in a tank and stopping the flow, or introducing fish into a tank with the bacteria already in it. Included in the bacteria are viral pathogens with the disease genes removed.
“There are only a few vaccines that work by immersion, but there are many pathogens that kill fish,” Gomez-Chiarri explained. “The vaccines that are available don’t work because when you do it by immersion you don’t get very much into the fish. You need to increase the amount of vaccine that you get into the fish for it to work.”
Gomez-Chiarri said that the method she has developed with Nelson uses bacteria that they know how to get into the fish to shuttle increased amounts of vaccine into the fish.
“You put the vaccine into the bacteria, and the bacteria serves as a vehicle to give it to the fish by immersion,” she said. Ordinarily, bacteria can be dangerous to fish, but according to Gomez-Chiarri, the pathogens that would cause illness in fish are removed from the bacteria, leaving only the vaccine. The fish eats the nonharmful bacteria, and the vaccine within protects the fish from disease.
The URI Foundation Excellence Awards were established in 1970 to honor faculty members. Over the years the awards were expanded to include scholarly, administration and faculty excellence. There is an extensive nomination process, and winners receive a certificate and a $2,000 stipend.
“I was surprised about winning the award,” Gomez-Chiarri said. “This has been a long process of research, and there is still a lot of work to do with it. It’s really rewarding to feel that the university recognizes your work. It feels like the pinnacle of a lot of work.”
Gomez-Chiarri continues to work on the immersion process. While the process is constantly being improved, the research is coming to a point that a vaccine company will have to continue the development of the process for commercial use.
“It’s like making pharmaceuticals,” Gomez-Chiarri said. “It takes a lot of money and a lot of effort. Usually academics do a little bit, and then companies take over and continue development. So this is kind of seed for future commercial development. It will need more to make it ready for commercial use.”
Gomez-Chiarri has traveled a long way from her Spanish homeland, to California, and eventually to Jamestown. She reflected on her time on the island. “Jamestown has everything that I like for my lifestyle. Everything is close. It’s a small, friendly community, and I love living by the ocean. It’s a great place to live.”