FRESNO -- Eight years ago, a vaccine to stop valley fever seemed within reach.
Ambitious scientists at five universities had brought in millions of dollars since 1997 from private donations and government funding to develop a way to beat the fungus before it ever had a chance to lodge in a person's lungs and wreak havoc on his or her organs.
In 2004, they announced selection of a path to pursue a vaccine.
"A vaccine is at hand," Dr. Richard Hector, director of the Valley Fever Vaccine Project of the Americas, an umbrella organization, told an excited group of scientists at California State University, Bakersfield.
But today, early animal trials of experimental vaccines have ground to a halt. Research funds have dried up. And the once thriving academic effort has slowed dramatically.
Private industry interest is critical to bringing a vaccine out of the laboratory and into doctor's offices and clinics. That has been the pattern for all modern vaccines. But there has been no interest by big pharmaceutical companies in investing in valley fever.
"Certainly, we think that more attention is needed on finding new effective treatments as well as preventive measures, like a vaccine," said Dr. Benjamin Park, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's chief expert in fungal diseases. Progress has been harmed by "neglect" and underinvestment, he added.
Early effort faltered
For more than 50 years scientists have grappled to develop a valley fever vaccine. The disease is tricky. The fungus that causes it infects a person for life and can never be removed from the body. But if a person fights off the disease, he or she is immune to future infections. That's why people who grew up in areas where the fungus is prevalent often avoid serious illness, but people who visit the area or move there are hit harder.
One vaccine evaluated in the late 1970s and early 1980s proved to be effective in mice and monkeys. Hundreds of people signed up for the human clinical trials.
But there was a problem.
Patients complained of sore arms and swelling at the injection site even at low doses. The shot was so painful people dropped out of the trials.
That vaccine didn't show conclusive protection, which some researchers attributed to the low doses. For a vaccine potent enough to provide immunization, people would have suffered too much pain to make vaccination practical, said Hector, now a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco.
The vaccine had reached the Phase III trial -- human testing, Hector said. The trial failed, so scientists had to start from scratch looking for a vaccine.
That unsuccessful trial also left a lot of questions unanswered, said Dr. Thomas Larwood, a retired Bakersfield physician who worked on the project.
"It didn't keep people from getting cocci," Larwood said, using the abbreviation for coccidioidomycosis. "Did it keep them from getting the (very serious) disseminated form? We don't know."
Optimism in the air
For more than a decade after those tests, vaccine research languished. Then, in 1997, a Bakersfield-based committee worked with California State University, Bakersfield to select five U.S. scientists to develop a vaccine with funding from the California HealthCare Foundation and the state of California.
The ambitious project started with a $1.5 million grant from the foundation, a $700,000 state fund, sponsored by Assemblyman Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, and a contribution of more than $100,000 from the Rotary Club.