Researchers Awarded $5.2 Million to Study Waterborne Pathogens
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University of Virginia

Two University of Virginia School of Medicine researchers have been awarded grants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop treatments and tests for some rapidly emerging trouble spots in the area of gastrointestinal diseases.

Under these cooperative agreement (U01) grants, one scientist plans to develop a single test to identify more than 20 different food and waterborne pathogens, while the second will create a single treatment, which could protect people from becoming infected with more than 20 potential pathogens.

These pathogens have become well known to the general public in recent years, most notably from cases of E. coli and because of large-scale public infections. For example, in 1993 more than 400,000 residents were sickened by Cryptosporidium parvum, a parasite, which infiltrated the water supply in Milwaukee. More than 100 people died as a direct result of being infected with the parasite.

“Detecting an outbreak of E. coli in the food supply or cryptosporidium in the water supply as quickly as possible is vital if we are going to ensure the safety of what we eat and drink,” said Dr. Eric Houpt, associate professor of medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “The challenge is developing one test for the most common pathogens, as opposed to just one test for one pathogen.”

Houpt will lead the team of researchers in developing the test, which includes scientists from Michigan State University, the Commonwealth of Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Tanzania and the private sector. The resulting diagnostic test could then be deployed to medical settings such as hospitals, clinics, or field sites.

Dr. Paul Hoffman, professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, is using his $2.6 million grant to develop second generation antiparasitic/antibacterial therapeutics to treat infections caused by Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Campylobacter, Entamoeba and Clostridium difficile.

“These are all very nasty parasites to pick up and for many people, especially people with weaker immune systems, they can prove fatal because of the debilitating diarrhea associated with infection,” Hoffman says.

Working with pharmaceutical companies and University of Virginia professor of chemistry Timothy Macdonald, Hoffman’s team plans to exploit a novel drug target common in parasites and certain bacteria by chemically modifying available drugs to improve their efficacy and expand the conditions they can treat.

“If we can put this medication in a single pill, we can prevent people from becoming ill from these parasites before they are exposed and treat them if they have been infected,” Hoffman says. “This could be used in preparation for a natural disaster where we know there will be parasitic outbreaks or in response to a bioterrorism event.”

Houpt and Hoffman are optimistic the test and the treatment could be ready for testing within three years.

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