Team of UVM researchers on cusp of vaccine trials to eliminate polio

A century after a Rutland doctor documented the first major polio outbreak, the world now stands on the brink of eradicating the disease.
Published: Dec. 15, 2021 at 6:18 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 16, 2021 at 9:06 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - While the world is on the brink of eradicating polio, the current vaccines aren’t perfect and the virus still has a stronghold on parts of Africa and the Middle East. Two Vermont researchers are developing a defense that could put an end to polio for good.

“It’s a really exciting moment actually, and it’s a cool opportunity as researchers to be part of the story,” said Dr. Jessica Crothers, who along with Dr. Ross Colgate, work out of the University of Vermont’s Vaccine Testing Center.

In 1894, a Rutland county physician documented the first outbreak of polio in the United States, marking one of the first and most important chapters in the history of the virus.

Now, 130 years later Crothers and Colgate could help close the book on the devastating disease. “UVM and Vermont is poised to play another important role and hopefully will be the last chapter of the polio story in the United States and the world,” Crothers said.

Polio was eliminated from the U.S. by the 1980s thanks to widespread vaccinations introduced in the 50s. The annual number of polio cases across the globe has declined by more than 99.9% since 1988, when the World Health Assembly launched a campaign to stop the spread. Crothers and Colgate are leading two separate studies with one common goal -- eradicate that last 0.1% of polio. “They’re two approaches to solving the same problem,” Colgate said.

The pair is testing two new polio vaccines to replace the existing two that are both roadblocks to eradication. The oral polio vaccine, also known as the Sabin vaccine, is a liquid administered through the mouth and primarily used in other countries. “That vaccine is problematic because the viruses in that vaccine can actually pick up mutations when they’re passed through people in the environment that can eventually go back to causing paralytic disease,” Colgate said.

The second treatment, known as the Salk vaccine, is a series of shots most Americans get as children. “Doesn’t do a very good job of establishing immune response in your gut,” Crothers said

Colgate’s trial tests the safety of a new, different oral version designed by a nonprofit and that’s less likely to mutate. Crothers’ trial tests the efficacy of an enhanced Salk vaccine designed by UVM’s team that gets rid of polio lingering in the gut. “So that when people get vaccinated with IPV, not only do they not get sick, but they also don’t have the ability to shed poliovirus in their stool asymptomatically,” Crothers said.

Colgate is currently enrolling 80 healthy adults in Vermont between the ages of 18 and 45 who’ve been vaccinated against polio. Crothers will start enrollment of 30 Vermonters with the same criteria in the spring. The researchers say those local volunteers will make a worldwide impact. “We’ve all lived through the past two years of seeing what a global infectious disease can do and how devastating it can be and this is a chance to actually help stop another global infectious disease in its tracks,” Colgate said.

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