WEST LIBERTY - A biology professor at West Liberty University has received $500,000 to research a dangerous pathogen that could potentially be used for biological warfare due to its highly infectious quality.
Professor Joseph Horzempa received a $250,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health and an additional $250,000 grant from West Virginia Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence to study Francisella tularensis, the most infectious pathogenic bacterium known to man. Humans who contract even a single bacterium of Francisella tularensis can develop a serious infection with a 60 percent fatality rate if left untreated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified the bacterium as a biodefense agent because of its possible use in bioterrorism.
"The reason why it is an important pathogen to focus on is because it's a biological warfare pathogen like anthrax," he said.
"If this organism gets into the wrong hands, those people could do a lot of damage."
Horzempa, along with research assistants Deanna Schmitt and Brianna Cowan and nine West Liberty students, will use the two-year grant to investigate the molecular biology of the Francisella tularensis to determine what makes it a pathogen in order to develop more effective vaccines and treatments in case of a widespread infection.
Horzempa first became interested in this bacterium during his time as a post-doctoral research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 2006, when bioterrorism was a hot topic among researchers. Horzempa was the first person to discover that the bacterium could invade human red blood cells, a significant find since scientists know of only a handful of bacteria that can do so.
"I was always interested in pathogenesis, or how disease-causing organisms function," Horzempa said. "I was really enthralled by this pathogen. Not a lot was known about it and not a lot of people knew about F. tularensis, so there were a lot of opportunities for new and exciting research avenues that hadn't been previously pursued. It's been really exciting."
Horzempa said Francisella tularensis is especially interesting because it is an "intracellular" pathogen, or it invades the inside of the host's cells, a unique quality for bacterial pathogens.
"Our main focus here at West Liberty is to figure out how Francisella tularensis gets into a red blood cell and why it's getting inside," Horzempa said. "A bigger goal is to figure out the reason. What is the biological purpose of the bacterium getting inside the red blood cell environment?"
Another unusual quality of the bacterium is its rarity. Francisella tularensis also has only been found in the Northern Hemisphere and only in certain "hot spots" of North America and Eurasia. Many cases of Francisella tularensis outbreaks have been found in Martha's Vineyard, an island off of Massachusetts, where gardeners and landscapers were coming down with pneumonia caused by the bacterium.
Francisella tularensis is carried in insects and small mammals and landscapers had been inhaling the bacteria that was thrown into the air when the the carcasses of small mammals were caught in moving lawn mowers. In fact, the disease caused by the bacterium, tularemia, is known as "rabbit fever."
In the future, Horzempa hopes to use his research to develop a vaccine that will protect people not only from Francisella tularensis, but other infectious bacteria to prevent multiple diseases with one immunization.
"My long-term goals involve understanding the pathogenesis, persistence and transmission of F. tularensis," Horzempa said. "Ultimately, I am interested in identifying novel therapeutics to combat this pathogen and other bacterial pathogens."