International Conference on Tularemia to be held in Woods Hole

Scientists will showcase newest data in the rapidly evolving field

MBL, Woods Hole, MA -- Scientists who study the bacterium Francisella tularensis, and the illness it causes, tularemia, will be meeting next week at the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) for the Fifth International Conference on Tularemia. The triannual event brings together the top researchers, postdocs, and graduate students who study the bacteriology, molecular genetics, ecology, and host response to the Francisella bacteria that causes the infectious disease.

Nearly 300 scientists from North America, Europe, and Asia will be participating in the conference, which takes place from November 1 through 4. Researchers will present new data on the epidemiology and ecology of tularemia, as well as the disease diagnosis, treatment, and vaccines. The conference will include formal invited presentations, workshop sessions, moderated discussions, and poster presentations.

Tularemia is a rare bacterial disease that occurs in animals and humans. It is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis and is typically spread to humans through a bite of an infected tick or after touching, handling, or eating an infected animal such as rabbits and rodents such as squirrels, muskrats, and beavers. Tularemia is not spread directly from human to human.

The most common symptoms of tularemia include a slow-healing skin sore and swollen glands, which are usually treated with antibiotics. Tularemia can be fatal if the person is not treated with appropriate antibiotics, particularly for the respiratory form of the disease.

Until recently, the exact means by which Francisella tularensis causes tularemia were not understood. At this meeting, several new pathogenesis strategies (disease-causing properties) of the bacteria will be described. Further, new findings on how Francisella enter and multiply within human or animal cells to cause disease in the face of immune responses intended to fight back against bacterial invasion will be discussed. New approaches to developing safe and effective vaccines will also be presented.

While tularemia is a widespread disease in animals, it is rare in humans with only 200 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year in the United States. Most cases occur in rural parts of south-central and western states. Tularemia is relatively rare in Massachusetts, with an average of three cases reported each year. Between 2000 and 2001, 21 cases of tularemia were reported to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, with 19 of those cases associated with an outbreak on Martha's Vineyard.

In addition to causing tularemia, Francisella is used as a model for studying tuberculosis and other intracellular bugs. The CDC also lists tularemia as a possible bioterrorist agent. If Francisella were used as a bioweapon, the bacteria would likely be made airborne so they could be inhaled. People who inhale the bacteria can experience severe respiratory illness, including life-threatening pneumonia and systemic infection, if they are not treated.

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The MBL is a leading international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to discovery and to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. For more information, visit www.MBL.edu


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