BY TINA SHELTON – The UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) and College of Natural Sciences have received an $11-million federal grant for continued research on dengue and other infectious diseases.
“We’re basically trying to understand how certain viruses and bacteria replicate, and how the vector and human host responds to infection,” said Richard Yanagihara, director of the Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research. “The newfound knowledge will accelerate the development of rapid diagnostic tests and improved drugs to treat these diseases.” Researchers also will explore the development of new prevention strategies, including affordable vaccines, Yanagihara said.
Funding comes from the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program in the Division of Research Infrastructure of the National Center for Research Resources in the National Institutes of Health. The COBRE centers are part of the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, a congressionally mandated mechanism to build health-related research infrastructure in 23 states and Puerto Rico, having relatively low levels of NIH funding.
This is UH Mānoa’s third prestigious NIH grant in recent weeks. Other major awards were a $9.2-million grant to fund education and training opportunities for undergraduates in the health sciences, and a $12.6-million grant to study why certain groups in Hawai‘i have disproportionately higher rates of or poorer outcomes from chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.
A dengue outbreak in Hawai‘i in 2001 and a global resurgence of vector-borne and zoonotic infectious diseases led to the establishment of the Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research in 2003.
The new five-year COBRE grant will strengthen and transform the center into a “translational science center of excellence focusing on emerging and re-emerging microbial threats of regional concern and global importance,” Yanagihara said.
The center’s mission is to reduce human suffering from new, emerging and re-emerging viral and bacterial diseases “which disproportionately affect vulnerable, ethnically diverse and underserved communities, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.
One of the main research targets is West Nile virus, which hasn’t yet reached Hawai‘i or Alaska but has affected people in the other 48 states and Puerto Rico, Yanagihara noted. “We are very interested in diseases of the central nervous system, and West Nile virus is one of the foremost causes of acute encephalomyelitis, or infection of the brain and spinal cord,” he said.
The scientists are interested in knowing how the virus travels from the blood stream to the brain—specifically “what kinds of events occur to allow the virus to get into the brain,” Yanagihara said. Understanding this virus “would allow better insights into other mosquito-borne viruses that cause neuroinvasive diseases, such as Japanese encephalitis virus, which is widespread throughout Asia,” he observed.
The $11-million grant will support four investigators—two junior and two mid-career faculty members: Associate Professor Wei-Kung Wang and Assistant Professor Saguna Verma, both from the medical school’s Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology, and Associate Professor Tung T. Hoang and Assistant Professor Hongwei Li of the Department of Microbiology in the College of Natural Sciences.
Tina Shelton is with the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine