UCI awarded $40 million to establish regional biodefense and infectious disease research center


Dr. Alan Barbour, acclaimed infectious disease expert, will oversee largest grant in UCI history

Dr. Alan Barbour

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Irvine, Calif., June 1, 2005 -- The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has awarded UC Irvine $40 million over four years to establish the Pacific-Southwest Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research -- one of only 10 federally funded regional centers dedicated to research for countering threats from bioterrorism agents and infectious diseases.

The largest ever received by the university, the grant was awarded to UCI infectious disease expert Dr. Alan Barbour, who also will serve as director of the new center. Barbour is internationally known for first isolating the cause of Lyme disease.

"Our center will bring together some of the country's best basic scientists and engineers for the common goal of preventing illness by developing more accurate tests to detect infections and new vaccines to protect people," Barbour said. "It's on a scale and with a level of cooperation that in the past has been seen mainly in the physical sciences, like climate studies and high-energy physics."

Rep. Chris Cox, who is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security and whose district includes Irvine, sent a letter of support for the center in November 2004 to the head of the NIAID, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Following news of the grant, Cox said, "This research center will use America's scientific expertise to assist our efforts for homeland security and overall public health, and I'm thrilled that the NIAID recognizes that UCI is a national leader in bio-medical science."

The center will administer and finance projects not only at UCI, but those at a consortium of 16 universities and research institutes in California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii. Its mission will be to bolster basic biomedical research into bioterrorism agents, such as those that cause anthrax and botulism, and naturally occurring infectious diseases, including West Nile virus, hantavirus and dengue, which affect increasing numbers of people worldwide. It also will provide scientific support, expertise and facilities in response to a national emergency, such as a terrorist attack or an epidemic of a new infectious disease, like the SARS virus.

According to Barbour, however, the center's most important goal will be providing the science for creating a defense against diseases and potential bioterrorism agents.

"While basic research on these infections and immunity to them will be at the heart of the center, a central goal is the timely translation of our findings into products and other applications to detect, prevent and treat the diseases and bioagents," he said. "We've worked hard to get to the point of getting this award, but there won't be much of a rest. We're ready to move ahead with the research."

As part of its research, the center will focus on:

  • developing vaccines for arboviruses such as the dengue virus, which is spreading in Asia and Latin America;
  • developing vaccines for devastating infections like Lassa fever;
  • finding antidotes to botulism, a highly potent toxin;
  • understanding how Burkholderia bacteria cause pneumonia and sepsis; and
  • discovering new methods to prevent tularemia, a serious bacterial disease named after Tulare County, Calif.
The center also will create a clinical trials unit for evaluating new vaccines. In addition, the center will support a detailed analysis of proteins and DNA that are key to understanding infectious diseases and bioterrorism agents, and lead efforts to apply recent computer and engineering advances toward improving infection detection as well as outbreak management.

Along with Barbour, other UCI researchers to play a key role at the center are Pierre Baldi, director of the Institute for Genomics and Bioinformatics; Jonas Bunikis of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics; Philip Felgner of the Center for Virus Research; and Dr. Donald Forthal, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine. They will be joined by researchers from UC Davis, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, University of Southern California, Caltech, Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, University of Hawaii, Stanford University, Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona, the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, the California Department of Health Services and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Overall, the center will sponsor 30 research projects involving 130 researchers, post-docs, students, and technical and support staff.

Center director Barbour, 59, a professor of medicine and microbiology, is a bacteriologist and infectious diseases specialist with research interests in the causes and molecular biology of infections spread by ticks and insects. In 1982, he gained international recognition as a co-discoverer of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. He later identified the protein that became an approved vaccine against the disease, and he recently led a team that showed that vaccinating wild mice in the field could indirectly lower the risk for humans of getting infected.

The UCI-based center and one based at Colorado State University received funding by the NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health, to complete the regional center network that was identified as a national priority in the 2002 NIAID Biodefense Research Agenda. NIAID established the network in 2003 with grants to eight institutions. Each of those institutions also leads a consortium made up of universities and other research institutions within its geographic region. These other centers are based in the states of Washington, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Missouri, Maryland and North Carolina.

For more information about the Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, see http://www2.niaid.nih.gov/Biodefense/Research/rce.htm.

Other Pacific-Southwest Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research participants: Rod Balhorn, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Stephen Barthold, UC Davis; Shannon Bennett, University of Hawaii; Jason Botten, Scripps Research Institute; Aaron Brault, UC Davis; Michael Buchmeier, Scripps; Paula Cannon, USC-Childrens Hospital Los Angeles; Dr. Adrian Casillas, UCLA; Yong Chen, UCLA; Peggy Cotter, UC Santa Barbara; Juan de la Torre, Scripps; Dr. Howard Fox, Scripps; Duane Gubler, University of Hawaii; Eva Harris, UC Berkeley; Dr. Marcus Horwitz, UCLA; Paul Keim, Northern Arizona University; Paul Kimsey, California Department of Health Services; Hartmuth Kolb, UCLA; Thomas Kozel, University of Nevada, Reno; Stefan Kunz, Scripps; David Low, UC Santa Barbara; Kenneth McGwire, Desert Research Institute; Jeffery F. Miller, UCLA; Denise Monack, Stanford University; Benjamin Neuman, Scripps; Vishal Saxena, USC-Childrens Hospital Los Angeles; Gavin Sherlock, Stanford; Stephen St. Jeor, University of Nevada, Reno; Raymond Stevens, Scripps; Ron Stevens, UCLA; Yu-Chong Tai, Caltech; Jeffrey Tok, Lawrence Livermore; Dr. Lucy Tompkins, Stanford; Dr. Joel Ward, UCLA; and Vicki Wysocki, University of Arizona.

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