The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Northern Arizona University (NAU) have been awarded a highly competitive five-year $4.5 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop new diagnostics and analytical tools for an important biodefense disease called melioidosis or Whitmore's Disease.
The illness was part of the biowarfare arsenal for both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War era. Although both biowarfare programs have been disbanded, remnants may exist. At this time, melioidosis can be found mostly in Southeast Asia and results in thousands of cases and deaths every year in countries like Thailand and Australia.
The research will be conducted at TGen North, the institute's pathogen genomics and biodefense research facility located in Flagstaff. Nationally recognized biosafety expert Dr. Paul Keim, Director of TGen's Pathogen Genomics Division and Professor of Biology and Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology at NAU, will lead this research effort. Dr. Keim's laboratory has developed one of the most comprehensive repositories for melioidosis samples in the world.
Under the direction of Dr. Keim, researchers will focus on developing smarter and faster diagnostic tools to give physicians more timely and accurate information on the cause of the disease, a species of bacteria known as Burkholderia pseudomallei, or "Burk".
"We have made great strides already with Burk and have identified genetic markers that predict the outcome of disease-essentially predicting whether or not a particular infection is destined to be fatal without prompt and aggressive treatment," said Dr. Keim, who is a co-principal investigator on the grant.
"We need to quickly develop these markers into accurate diagnostic tools and get them into the clinics where this disease occurs," Dr. Keim added.
TGen will work in collaboration with NAU and a clinical facility, the Menzies School of Health Research, located in Darwin, Australia.
The NAU portion of the research will be headed by Dr. David Wagner, an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and the Associate Director of the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at NAU.
"This is truly a collaborative project," Dr. Wagner said. "Although melioidosis is a potential bioterrorism weapon and an important cause of disease in some parts of the world, it does not occur naturally in the United States. As a result, international collaborations are absolutely crucial to allow us to effectively study this important pathogen.
Our partners in Australia bring more than 20 years of experience of working directly with melioidosis in a clinical setting. TGen brings their excellent skills in developing rapid, accurate diagnostic tools, and NAU brings years of experience of working with Burkholderia pseudomallei in the laboratory," Dr. Wagner continued.
The end result of this research will be a tool that accurately identifies and characterizes the pathogen in clinical samples in a matter of hours. The existing technology requires several days to analyze samples.