UND scientists try to get a jump on rabbit fever

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News Article

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School of Medicine & Health Sciences


GRAND FORKS, N.D.—The National Institutes of Health awarded a $349,108 two-year grant to Assistant Professor Jyotika Sharma, PhD, a microbial immunologist in the Department of Basic Sciences at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, for her study of a respiratory infection from a bacterium, Francisella tularensis, that causes a rare debilitating disease called tularemia, more commonly known as rabbit fever. People exposed to the disease develop flu-like symptoms, which, if left untreated, can lead to a mortality rate of up to 40 percent. Thus far, there are no vaccines available to prevent this infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, naturally occurring infections from the bacterium have been reported in every state except Hawaii. Humans can become infected by tick and deer fly bites, skin contact with infected animals, ingesting contaminated food or water, and inhaling the bacteria. Franciscella tularensis is very infectious—it takes only 10 to 50 bacteria to cause an infection. The virulence of the disease—particularly from inhalation—is a concern to the CDC because the bacteria could be weaponized and used by bioterrorists.

When harmful bacteria invade the body, the immune system recognizes the antigens or chemical flags on the surface of the bacterial cells that tell the immune system that the cell is foreign. The immune system mounts a defense by preparing antibodies to attack and repel the infection. But if the immune response is ineffective or weak, the body will succumb to the infection. If caught in time, Franciscella can be combatted with antibiotics; however, given the widespread and deadly nature of the bacteria, vaccination before infection would be optimal.

"The NIH has poured in millions of dollars so far to get a vaccine made against this infection," Sharma said. "While it has vastly improved our knowledge about how this disease is caused, we are still far from formulating an effective preventive strategy."

Assistant Professor Bibhuti B. Mishra, PhD, is a coinvestigator and collaborator with Sharma. Their team working on this project includes Anthony Steichen, a third-year Ph.D. student, and Brandilyn Binstock, an undergraduate student.

They have designed a unique way of identifying Francisella antigens that produce the most protective antibodies to fight off the infection. By "filtering out" the antigens that elicit a nonprotective response from the immune system, they hope to yield the identity of antigens required for generating antibodies that will provide a protective immune response.

"Currently, when NIH funding is getting harder to obtain, particularly on Francisella research, the NIH has welcomed our unique approach that takes advantage of identifying differential immune responses," Sharma said. "We believe that this unique approach can serve as a platform for identifying novel vaccine candidates for other bacterial pathogens as well."

A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is the nation's medical research agency. The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. The mission of the NIH is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.