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National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
http://www.niaid.nih.gov

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, Sept. 12, 1996

Media Contact:
John Bowersox
(301) 402-1663

niaidnews@niaid.nih.gov

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NIAID Funds New Projects to Study Emerging Infectious Diseases

As part of its effort to meet the challenges of emerging infectious diseases, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) recently awarded seven new four-year research grants. Four projects will focus on hepatitis C and three will study hantavirus and other emerging viruses. First-year funding for the new projects will total approximately $3.7 million.

"These awards reflect NIAID's ongoing commitment to basic and applied research to enhance diagnosis, treatment, prevention and control of emerging infectious diseases," says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. "As we have seen with the AIDS epidemic, the threat that emerging diseases pose is potentially enormous, both in human and economic terms. To adequately respond to this threat, we must continue to expand our emerging disease knowledge base and research infrastructure. These initiatives help us do that."

The Hepatitis C Cooperative Research Centers (HC CRCs) and Emerging Virus Research Groups (EVRGs) are designed as multidisciplinary, collaborative research units, each of which will conduct integrated studies around a central theme. HC CRC investigators will pursue studies aimed at the prevention and treatment of hepatitis C viral infection. In the EVRGs, laboratory, field and clinical researchers will place special emphasis on studies related to hantavirus infection.

"Hepatitis C virus and hantavirus are two of the many disease-causing agents that have been newly identified or that have re-emerged over the past two decades," says John La Montagne, Ph.D., director of NIAID's Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, which will administer the new programs. Dr. La Montagne adds that the establishment of the new programs is part of NIAID's research agenda for emerging infectious diseases. The agenda's five-point strategy calls for expanding basic scientific knowledge and technology, applying current information to identify and control diseases, strengthening the research base for specific disease prevention and research strategies, developing and testing new drugs and vaccines, and training scientists in disciplines related to emerging infectious diseases. The following institutions and principal investigators received the new grants:

Hepatitis C Cooperative Research Centers

Stanford University
Harry B. Greenberg, M.D.

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Stanley M. Lemon, M.D.

University of Southern California
Michael M. Lai, M.D.

University of Washington*
Nelson Fausto, M.D.

Emerging Virus Research Groups

University of New Mexico
Fred Koster, Ph.D.

University of Texas Medical Center, Galveston
Robert B. Tesh, M.D.

The Scripps Research Institute,
La Jolla, Calif.

Michael J. Buchmeier, Ph.D.

*The University of Washington Hepatitis C Center will be co-funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

Background

Hepatitis C

The hepatitis C virus causes approximately 150,000 cases of acute viral hepatitis each year in the United States. Recovery from infection is rare and between 70 and 90 percent of infected persons become chronic carriers of the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic liver disease due to hepatitis C causes between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths and leads to about 1,000 liver transplants each year in the United States.

Since its discovery in 1989, researchers have identified at least 21 genetic forms of hepatitis C virus and have analyzed a number of its structural and nonstructural proteins. New diagnostic tests are able to identify more cases of chronic, asymptomatic hepatitis C virus infection than could previous assays. The new assays also have improved the screening of donated blood for this infection.

Despite these advances, many questions remain. The role that host factors play in chronic hepatitis C infection is largely unexplored. The mode of transmission is unknown for more than 40 percent of all cases, and the virus's genetic diversity and high rate of mutation create obstacles for developing treatment and prevention strategies. These and other issues will be addressed by NIAID's Hepatitis C Virus Cooperative Research Centers.

"Research conducted by these Centers should generate the knowledge needed to devise preventive and therapeutic strategies for hepatitis C infection," says NIAID's Leslye Johnson, Ph.D., the project officer for the HC CRCs. "Clinical issues and research needs will be the driving forces behind their efforts."

Hantavirus

In 1993, an outbreak of a mysterious, often fatal, illness occurred in the Southwestern United States. Scientists quickly determined that the illness, characterized by fever, chills and muscle pain followed by acute respiratory distress, was caused by a previously unrecognized strain of hantavirus, a family of disease-causing viruses that occurs naturally in mice and other rodents. Now known as hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, the disease has been diagnosed in more than 100 people, approximately half of whom have died.

Very little is known about hantavirus pulmonary syndrome and the virus that causes it. Researchers hope to determine potential treatment strategies for this disease by studying the pathogenesis and immunologic characteristics of hantavirus infection. Investigators also will examine the natural history of hantavirus infection in rodents as well as the ecologic conditions that favor the spread of hantavirus infection among rodents.

Other Emerging Viruses

Studies of other emerging viruses also are planned. For example, researchers will investigate the ecologic and epidemiologic factors associated with the emergence of viruses that cause South American hemorrhagic fevers and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, diseases that are transmitted to humans from rodents and mosquitoes, respectively. Scientists also will conduct immunologic studies of the virus that causes Lassa fever, another rodent-borne hemorrhagic fever endemic to western Africa. Although these viruses do not pose an immediate threat to the United States, this research could help guard against outbreaks of similar diseases in this country.

"Viruses related to the South American hemorrhagic fever viruses have been recovered from rodents in the United States," explains James Meegan, Ph.D., NIAID's project officer for the EVRG program. "Outbreaks of Venezuelan equine encephalitis occurred in Texas in the early 1970s, and a major outbreak occurred last year in Columbia and Venezuela. There is concern that, as in the past, it will spread to the United States."

Through an interagency agreement with NIAID, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will provide EVRGs with additional funding and technical resources to conduct pilot studies of the use of satellite technology for monitoring and controlling emerging diseases. In these studies, geographic information satellite systems will analyze environmental patterns of regions where hantavirus and Venezuelan equine encephalitis are endemic. Scientists hope that this technology might ultimately be able to detect environmental changes associated with the emergence of these and other disease-causing viruses.

NIAID and NIDDK are components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIAID conducts and supports research to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, asthma and allergies. NIH is an agency of the Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


NIAID conducts and supports research—at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide—to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at www.niaid.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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Important note: Information on this page was accurate at the time of publication. This page is no longer being updated.
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Last Updated September 15, 1996