DoD Funds Infection Genomics Research Center
CEIG supports four research areas
When infectious viruses, bacteria and fungi enter the human body, they multiply by transforming themselves and taking over cells and organisms. Understanding exactly how these microbes do all this and how to interrupt these processes are the life’s work of the professors within the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases (STCEID).
Understanding and developing treatments for infectious diseases are also of great interest to the Department of Defense (DoD), which last year awarded a $4.6 million, five-year grant to professors within STCEID to give life to UTSA’s Center of Excellence in Infection Genomics. CEIG supports the four areas of research for the investigators named in the grant, as well as an educational component meant to increase the number of students interested in working towards cures for infectious diseases.
"This is a multidisciplinary, integrated program that facilitates research in the area of microbial pathogenesis and uses the power of genomics to come up with solutions that the Department of Defense can use,” said Bernard Arulanandam, project director for CEIG, professor of microbiology and immunology, associate dean of research for scientific innovation, and holder of the Jane and Roland Blumberg Professorship in Biology.
CEIG researchers study the genes of the microbes that cause diseases in humans. Specifically, the grant funds four themes of research:
Genomics of Enteric and Respiratory Pathogens
Karl Klose, professor of microbiology and director of STCEID, focuses his work on gastrointestinal and respiratory bacterial diseases, using Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera, and Francisella tularensis, which can cause tularemia and pneumonia, as models for understanding bacterial infection in the GI tract and respiratory system.
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Vector-borne Pathogens
Janakiram Seshu, associate professor of bacterial pathogenesis, and James Chambers, professor of biochemistry, study infectious agents transmitted to humans and animals through vectors such as spiders and insects. One disease that they are studying is Lyme disease, which is transmitted to humans through ticks.
Immunopathogenesis of Fungal Infections and Antifungal Drug Development
José López-Ribot, professor of biology; Stephen Saville, assistant professor of genetics; and Floyd Wormley, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, study the vexing problem of developing antifungal treatments in patients whose immune systems have been compromised, such as persons with HIV-AIDS.
Arulanandam’s research in the area of antichlamydial vaccine development informs the development of vaccines for other diseases, including the areas of research within CEIG. His work with Klose has already led to a patent for a potential vaccine candidate for Francisella tularensis. Arulanandam is named as a principal on a total of four patents, including one which was licensed to Merck in 2008 for the development of a vaccine for chlamydia. STCEID is in the process of hiring a genomics expert to collaborate with CEIG researchers. “This group is highly collaborative,” Arulanandam said. “We meet on a regular basis. And we move our research forward.” The group works closely with researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where Arulanandam, Klose and López-Ribot hold cross appointments. DoD funding will support the continued collaboration between UTSA and UTHSCSA. “The Army and military in general are interested in learning more about these diseases because they send troops around the world, and their troops are likely to get sick,” said Karl Klose. “The side benefit and payoff is that whatever they find to help their troops is also going to help the population that lives in that area. And in the end, it’s very beneficial to many people.”
A key component of the CEIG grant is the hiring of doctoral students, who will be assisting the professors with their research. CEIG serves as a conduit for the training of Ph.D., master’s and undergraduate students with dedicated projects in microbial, genetic and infectious disease laboratories. The center is committed to increasing the pool of South Texas students interested in pursuing a career in microbiology research.
“As we do this high-end research, we are also tasked with training the next generation of students,” said Arulanandam. “So it’s focused on students learning and becoming scientists, with an emphasis to try to train minority students or other historically underserved students in science,” Klose said. “It is a fantastic resource to attract graduate students. This allows us to expand the number of graduate students coming in and doing research in our laboratories. So everybody wins in the end. The university wins. The scientists win.” About $350,000 of the program grant goes toward high school outreach. When the Ph.D. students aren’t working in the laboratories assisting professors with their research, they are reaching out to high school students. CEIG graduate students visit the schools regularly, where they direct laboratory experiments, discuss their own research and career paths, and assist with science fair projects.
During the 2011-2012 school year, CEIG faculty and graduate students worked with teachers at John Jay High School and Edison High School in San Antonio. The CEIG grant funded classroom sets of microscopes, lab supplies and textbooks. CEIG faculty developed curriculum for the first microbiology class for John Jay High School. The success was proven by the enrollment numbers—John Jay will be adding a class in Fall 2012-2013 to accommodate the overwhelming number of interested students. “The outreach component is exciting in that we grab these kids much earlier, so we can excite them while they are still in high school, enhance the curriculum and facilitate their interest in science—and, we hope, microbiology— and then get the best and the brightest to come to UTSA,” Arulanandam said.
Identifying talent early and generating interest in infectious disease research is the key to finding viable treatments in the long run, since the work of identifying causes and finding treatments can be a decades-long endeavor.
While the researchers at CEIG hold seven patents—indicating they’ve made breakthrough discoveries in their areas of research—more work and more studies will be necessary before any of their work translates into treatments for the troops or for the general population.
“There are some areas where we are relatively far along in our research; others are in their infancy,” Klose said. “I have been working on cholera for 20 years now, and I would say that we are still in the infancy of trying to come up with something concrete, whereas, with Francisella tularensis, we have a pretty good vaccine candidate that I am interested in pushing towards a translational level because it works really well.” But, he said, while he feels confident that his laboratory has developed a viable treatment for tularemia, more animal trials and funding for that research will be necessary to prove the safety and effectiveness of that cure.
“We did tests in rats, and the vaccine is very effective against what I would call the weaponized form of this organism, which could be used as a bioweapon,” Klose said. “The rats were protected against the weaponized form of tularemia, and the government is very interested in finding a vaccine that works against that. I think the results are great. Getting someone to be interested and getting them to pay for the next vaccine trials are where we need to go.” While this DoD grant to fund CEIG will not fund trials for this vaccine, he said it provides a key funding “bridge” for the scientists within STCEID, which is primarily funded through the National Institutes of Health. The NIH budget will be frozen at 2011 funding levels for the year 2013.
“Funding has gotten very tight. Obviously this grant from DoD is helping everybody because these are really talented scientists, and NIH is the major source of funding for research in the United States. Thank goodness for DoD!”