$45 million granted for infectious disease research at UCI

In a time when budget cuts are as common as hang nails, UC Irvine’s award of $45 million for infectious disease research is a breath of fresh air for Alan Barbour, director of the recipient program, the Pacific-Southwest Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research (PSW RCE) at UCI. The contribution is the largest renewal grant the campus has ever received.

PSW RCE will be distributing the received funds to various participating institutions. Such institutions include, but are not limited to, UCLA, City of Hope National Medical Center, Arizona State University, University of Hawaii and the Ministry of Health in Nicaragua.

There are currently 10 other institutions in the United States designated as Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease similar to the PSW RCE at UCI. Grants distributed to these institutions are allocated by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID).

To receive a grant, Barbour explained that an extensive application process is involved. In the process of earning this particular grant, 700 pages of applications material involving detailed descriptions of the research to be conducted in 30 individual labs had to be completed.

Once allocated, there is a timeline of five years for the institution to utilize the money received to conduct research. Approximately two-thirds of the funds received will be allocated towards research and the remaining one-third goes to UCI and the UC system as a whole. For the latter, the money helps pay for electricity, water, custodial employment, safety programs and more.

The mission of PSW RCE is focused primarily in the field of medical research. This involves: first the understanding of how a specific disease/virus makes people sick, second determining methods to detect the disease, third making a prognosis and fourth finding vaccines and new treatments of the disease.

Diseases studied by the institution are among those listed by the federal government as diseases of high priority. Since this includes responding to bioterrorism threats and infectious disease emergencies, there is flexibility in what the institution researches with its efforts focused on issues requiring urgent attention.

Barbour discussed some of the diseases the PSW RCE is currently directing its research efforts toward.

One example is dengue fever, a viral disease people contract from mosquitoes. However, while people acquire dengue fever from mosquitoes, the insect is merely a carrier of the disease, passing it from person to person.

Even though the disease has not crossed into the continental U.S., it is problematic in Mexico, South Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia and other regions of the world. This is a pressing issue because the disease could easily be imported into the United States. There is currently no vaccine or treatment for dengue fever.

“Right now, the only way to prevent dengue fever is to avoid mosquito bites. This can include controlling mosquito populations, as well as mosquito nets around beds and repellents,” Barbour said.

Another disease currently being studied by PSW RCE is botulism. This may be better known to the general public as botox, which is essentially the toxin in a smaller amount. However, botulism in larger amounts could result in paralysis of the muscle and ultimately damage other nerves.

The source of the toxin is bacteria living in soil that people acquire mostly from canned foods such as beans and meats. Not only is botulism the most potent poison known, but it is also a concern because it could be utilized for criminal and terrorism purposes. The toxin is potent even in small amounts and difficult to detect.

With the vast amount of research PSW RCE conducts and the myriad of participating institutions and individual labs it oversees, the institution’s success is owed primarily to its collaborative efforts. Barbour explicates that this allows the center to prevent duplicating its efforts and to act very quickly in directing its resources.

The NIAID’s distribution of $45 million in renewal grant to PSW RCE at UCI is a promising sign that the research center’s efforts are to be highly esteemed.