UCLA awarded more than $6 million for biodefense and infectious disease research

06/06/05

UCLA has been awarded more than $6 million over four years by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to support research for countering threats from bioterrorism agents and infectious diseases. UCLA will be a major component of the Pacific?Southwest Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, a consortium of more than a dozen universities and research institutes in California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii.

"Our hope is to increase fundamental knowledge on bacterial and viral pathogens and help mitigate the bioterrorism threat," said Jeffery F. Miller, professor and chair of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at UCLA, and the center's associate director for basic research.

Miller's laboratory will focus on bacterial pathogens and will study an environmental organism that causes pneumonia and septicemia, and is a potential bioterror threat. Numerous safety precautions will be in effect, as required under federal regulations. The researchers will work with the organism under tightly controlled conditions, with high security and extensive oversight by the university and federal agencies.

"This bacterium has a large genome and is largely unexplored," said Miller, who holds UCLA's M. Philip Davis Chair in Microbiology and Immunology. "We will work to learn the fundamental mechanisms of its cell biology and how it causes disease. It enters cells and injects proteins into cells using a molecular syringe."

"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," said Alan Barbour, professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of California, Irvine, who will serve as director of the new center. Barbour is internationally known as a co-discoverer of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease; he also identified the protein that became an approved vaccine against the disease.

While the center's goals include scientific applications to detect, prevent and treat diseases and bio-agents -- including developing vaccines -- Miller and Barbour also emphasized the importance of basic scientific research in providing the foundation for creating a defense against diseases and potential bioterrorism agents.

"Basic research is essential, and provides a foundation for future applications," said Miller, a member of both UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine and the UCLA College. "We will study the fundamental mechanisms of how bacterial pathogens work and cause disease."

Miller noted that the discovery of restriction enzymes, a fundamental tool for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, was the result of pure intellectual curiosity.

"Restriction enzymes were discovered years ago not by biochemists or geneticists looking for something practical, but because a bacterial virus would infect one strain of E. coli, but not another; the strain the virus would not infect expressed these enzymes that would chop apart the bacterial virus' DNA. The researchers who made this discovery had no immediate practical applications in mind, and yet what came from that discovery is an indispensable tool in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry.

"In addition, knowledge of the genomes of bacterial pathogens required many years of research on model organisms such as E. coli," he added. "There are many such examples of the essential role basic science has played in leading to essential medical applications."

Overall, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded $40 million over four years to establish the Pacific?Southwest Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, which will be based at the University of California, Irvine. The institute is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The center is one of only 10 federally funded regional centers dedicated to research for countering threats from bioterrorism agents and infectious diseases. 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.

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.

In addition to Miller, researchers at UCLA who will receive funding from the institute are Marcus Horwitz, professor of medicine and microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics; Yong Chen, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Adrian Casillas, assistant professor of medicine; Joel Ward, professor of pediatrics at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center; Hartmuth Kolb, associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology; and Ronald Stevens, professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics.

The center also will consist of researchers from the University of California, Irvine; the University of California, Davis; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of Southern California; the California Institute of Technology; the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla; the 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. The center will sponsor 30 research projects involving 130 researchers, post-docs, students, and technical and support staff.

The other Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases are based in the states of Colorado, Washington, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Missouri, Maryland and North Carolina.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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