Virginia Tech receives NIH funds brucellosis research

BLACKSBURG, Va., March 8, 2004 – Virginia Tech researchers from Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) and Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM) have received $300,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study brucellosis. Caused by Brucella bacteria, a potential bioterrorism agent, brucellosis is common to animals and some strains infect humans.

Yongqun "Oliver" He of Blacksburg, Va., senior research associate at VBI, and colleagues will use cutting-edge technology to facilitate the creation of a human vaccine against brucellosis.

By using microarray analysis, the scientists will determine which host genes are involved in fighting off the disease process. "Microarray technology makes it possible to analyze tens of thousands of genes in a single experiment," said He. "Understanding the genetic basis of virulence and host defenses will make it possible to develop strategies to treat and prevent infections."

Brucella is one of the few bacteria able to overcome the body's infection-fighting cells, known as macrophages. These large, versatile cells in the immune system are a major player in the body's ability to start a specific defense against infection. Brucella bacteria overcome the body's defenses and live inside macrophages. Understanding host-pathogen interactions is a major focus for Virginia Tech's newly created Institute of Biomedical and Public Health Sciences. He and project collaborators Stephen Boyle, Gerhardt Schurig, and Nammalwar Sriranganathan from the VMRCVM and Raju Lathigra from VBI are studying three species of Brucella that infect humans (B. abortus, B. melitensis, and B. suis).

As a doctoral student in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, He worked with Schurig, professor of immunology; Boyle, professor of microbiology; and Sriranganathan, professor of microbiology. Schurig developed the RB51vaccine against brucellosis in cattle and Boyle enhanced it as a vaccine against brucellosis and anthrax. Brucellosis has been eradicated in U.S. cattle and the vaccine is now in use worldwide. With funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, Sriranganathan is adapting the RB51 vaccine as a platform against other diseases and for use in humans.

He received his Ph.D. in veterinary medical sciences (infectious diseases and immunology) in 2000, and went on to earn a master's degree in computer science at Virginia Tech to fine tune his ability to apply computational tools to biological problems. He joined VBI in 2001.He developed his expertise in microarray experiment design and data analysis working with VBI senior research associate Lathigra, who has expertise in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, also an intracellular bacteria.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Virginia Tech and the VMRCVM each provided $4,000 to enable the researcher to purchase the supplies necessary to begin the microarray analysis. The resulting data convinced the NIH to fund an extended research project, providing $300,000 this year with potential for a $301,167 renewal next year.

The microarray analysis for this project will be performed at VBI's Core Laboratory Facility (CLF), a multi-user resource providing technologies to analyze DNA, RNA and protein molecules.  "Samples provided by Dr. He will be analyzed using the Affymetrix GeneChip technology to identify changes in host gene expression in response to Brucella infection.  The CLF is excited to implement the generation of microarray data for this project in collaboration with Dr. He and his colleagues," said Susan Martino-Catt, director of systems biology at VBI.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become the largest university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech's eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top 30 research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 170 academic degree programs.