The University of Virginia’s Global Infectious Diseases Institute has funded seven projects designed to tackle challenging problems in infectious diseases worldwide.
Collaborative teams drawn from diverse academic disciplines are researching ways to stop drug-resistant pathogens (the so-called “superbugs”), to control and treat Zika virus infections and to reduce tuberculosis rates among HIV-infected patients in sub-Saharan Africa.
“We put forth a call for proposals in the spring that resulted in many great project ideas, and we’ve provided one-year kick-start funding for seven of them,” said Alison Criss, the institute’s director and a professor of microbiology, immunology and cancer biology. “Our researchers have formed terrific collaborations to create new multi-pronged approaches for tackling some of the most urgent and emerging health problems facing people throughout the world.”
The institute is recognizing its awardees with a Trainee-Faculty Social to be held July 24, from 4 to 6 p.m., at Open Grounds.
“We will celebrate their success, encourage the creation of new teams for collaborative research and gather ideas for more events and activities from our membership, including our trainees,” Criss said. “This event is open to anyone with an interest in our institute, including those who would like to learn more and to meet possible future collaborators.”
The institute was formed a year ago as one of four pan-University institutes created through an initiative of UVA’s Cornerstone Strategic Plan. The idea is to draw on the broad intellectual capital of the University, from a range of disciplines, to find solutions to major problems facing societies in the 21st century.
The Global Infectious Diseases Institute’s goal is to help organize and promote infectious disease research at UVA, with particular emphasis on big-picture projects that have the potential to earn major external funding.
The institute is focusing on three areas: catalyzing research aimed at combating global epidemics, such as influenza, Zika and Ebola; finding new approaches to stop antibiotic-resistant pathogens; and reducing diarrheal infections that sicken and kill millions of children around the world.
“With this seed funding, our goal is to lower the barriers to research success in highly challenging areas by providing grants of between $50,000 to $100,000, based on the scope and needs of each project,” Criss said. “This helps the teams to generate preliminary data and approaches that can win large grants in a very competitive funding environment.”
The institute recently hired David Garcia as associate director of program development. He will work with research teams to develop grant proposals and facilitate contacts with funding agency administrators.
The institute also is developing programs to educate and train the next generation of health researchers, engineers, policymakers and entrepreneurs. The program emphasizes collaboration at all levels, from senior faculty to postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students, all working together to advance the common goals of the projects. Criss said the institute is launching a “NextGen Association” to bring together trainees from across Grounds interested in global infectious diseases.
“Our trainees, from undergraduates through postdoctoral fellows, can really benefit by learning about the different approaches to tackling difficult challenges while working in a collaborative environment,” she said. “The NextGen Association aligns with our vision of interdisciplinary research that includes science, policy and humanities, which fits with approaches like [international initiative] OneHealth to address major infectious diseases challenges throughout the world.”
The newly funded, multi-disciplinary, multi-investigator teams include members from such departments as infectious diseases, biomedical engineering, molecular physiology and biological physics, pediatrics, gastroenterology, surgery, microbiology, chemistry, nursing and public health sciences administration.
The projects and team leaders are:
- A team led by physician-scientist Dr. Molly Hughes that is using an innovative approach to treating wound infections caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria.
- Independent teams led by electrical and computer engineers Nathan Swami and Farzad Hassanzadeh are developing ways to rapidly identify bacteria likely to resist antibiotics.
- Systems biologist Martin Wu is organizing a team using personalized medicine for real-time diagnosis of diarrhea-causing bacteria.
- Two teams, one led by biophysicist Peter Kasson and the other by neuroscientist John Lukens, are identifying Zika virus antibodies and defining the roles of inflammatory responses in congenital Zika virus infection, respectively.
- And clinical researcher Chris Moore and colleagues are laying the groundwork for a clinical trial to tackle tuberculosis in HIV-infected patients in sub-Saharan Africa.
Criss noted that the institute expects the successes of the funded projects will result in distinctive work, elevating the University to preeminence in global infectious diseases.