BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Virginia Tech announced on Thursday that a professor of virology and immunology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Lijuan Yuan, is set to evaluate a potential vaccine for the top cause of food-borne illness: norovirus.

According to officials, John Patton with Indiana University, along with his colleagues, is developing a norovirus vaccine that utilizes the Rotarix rotavirus vaccine as a platform.

“Using reverse genetics, they will insert a norovirus protein into Gene 7 of the rotavirus,” Virginia Tech said in a statement on Thursday, July 28. “The virus will then express the norovirus protein in the gut, inducing an immune response against norovirus.”  

The Blacksburg university tells WFXR News that Yuan’s lab will evaluate the replication capacity, immunogenicity, and protective efficacy of the vaccine by using gnotobiotic pig models of human rotavirus and norovirus infection and diarrhea.

School officials define a gnotobiotic animal as one that has been specially raised to contain zero germs or bacteria, allowing researchers to better study the effects of bacteria and viruses, including rotavirus and norovirus.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus is America’s leading cause of both vomiting and diarrhea from acute gastroenteritis, resulting in 19 million to 21 million cases each year. 

Virginia Tech says that norovirus tends to affect young kids and the elderly the most. In fact, it leads to about 24,000 hospitalizations and 925,000 outpatient visits for American children each year, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Rotavirus also causes acute gastroenteritis and hits young children the hardest, school officials say.

“Together, rotavirus and norovirus cause over 415,000 deaths every year, and norovirus also has a very significant burden even in the countries that don’t have a lot of deaths,” Yuan said. “The economic cost is huge, $4.2 billion in direct costs and $60 billion in indirect societal costs. You hear about norovirus outbreaks on the news all the time in hospitals, nursing homes, and cruise ships and how it’s closing down restaurants, so it’s got a lot of economic implications.”

According to Virginia Tech, unlike norovirus, there are multiple rotavirus vaccines available, which are able to prevent an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 hospitalizations among infants and young kids every year in the U.S.

Officials say the reason it’s taken so long to develop a norovirus vaccine is because norovirus — unlike many other viruses — cannot be cultivated in cell cultures in an efficient manner. In addition, mice get murine noroviruses, which do not cause the same disease as noroviruses in humans and thus provides a challenge for testing the vaccine.

“We will use a gnotobiotic pig model of human norovirus infection and diarrhea. It’s actually the only laboratory animal model available that develops norovirus gastroenteritis that are similar to what you see in humans,” explained Yuan.

According to the university, the pig model is unique because there are less than 10 gnotobiotic pig facilities in the country.

In her lab, Virginia Tech says Yuan studies gnotobiotic pig models of human enteric virus infection and disease, like the way probiotics affect immunity and the evaluation of rotavirus and norovirus vaccines, as well as anti-norovirus biologicals.  

While working with gnotobiotic pigs is both time and labor intensive, school officials tell WFXR News that the pig model of norovirus will test a vaccine that could help millions of people.