UMN researchers working on vaccine to prevent mono

The Mono Project is a research effort dedicated to creating a vaccine that would prevent the common viral infection.

Norah Kleven

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are working to prevent mono, a common viral infection among college students. 

The University-led Mono Project is geared toward creating what could be the first-ever vaccine to protect against the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis. 

Henry Balfour is a University professor and principal investigator of the project, which started in 2007. He said the goal is to make a vaccine that would prevent people from contracting mono. Right now, experts outside the University are working to purify the vaccine so it can be tested in mice and eventually authorized for clinical human trials. 

Mono runs its course over an average of 17 days, Balfour said. Its symptoms include fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes and can take students out of school for weeks, he added. 

In addition to preventing mono, Balfour said he hopes the vaccine will also protect against certain cancers and autoimmune diseases. 

According to The Mono Project’s website, there are 280,000 cases of mono in U.S. college freshmen annually. From Sept. 1, 2018 to April 1, 2019, Boynton Health diagnosed 89 cases of mono, according to Holly Ziemer, Boynton’s marketing and communication director.

Balfour was unable to predict when the vaccine would be licensed, or available to the public with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorization, and said it’s hard to predict timelines for medical research.

“Medical research is something that CEOs of the industry don’t understand,” he said, “When you put something into human beings, the bar is very high for us to show probability of efficacy.” 

Jennifer Geris, a University graduate student and another researcher on the project, has a personal connection to the study.

In May of 2011, Geris was infected with mono and it plagued her through the summer, she recalled. 

“Going through it myself honestly gave me a new perspective of what a lot of these students are going through when they would come in for our studies,” she said.

Geris has been working on The Mono Project since her freshman year at the University, starting in late 2010. 

Currently, there are no medicines or practices that can effectively prevent mono, Geris said. 

Geris said she was lucky she was able to finish her spring semester without having to drop out of school. However, she still thinks about the opportunities and time forfeited while she was sick with mono. The experience, she said, highlighted the importance of the work she and her fellow investigators are conducting.  

“My biggest hope is we’re able to raise money and keep that momentum going to where we can see this all the way through to clinical trial. It’s really promising,” Geris said.