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Scientists Partner With Others To Form Center Aimed At Combating Infectious Diseases

April 16, 2009

 Oregon Health & Science University and the University of Washington, along with a number of partner institutions across the Northwest, have received federal funding to form a regional research center aimed at combating emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases that pose a serious threat to human health.

Based at OHSU, the collaborative Pacific Northwest Regional Center for Excellence (PNWRCE) for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases was established through a five-year, $40.7 million cooperative agreement from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a component of the National Institutes of Health. Jay Nelson, Ph.D., is director of the PNWRCE and OHSU’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute (VGTI), and Michael Katze, Ph.D., UW professor of microbiology, is co-director of the PNWRCE.

“Since the anthrax attacks in 2001, the country has rapidly expanded our ability to detect and combat infectious diseases whether they are spread naturally or through a bioterrorist attack,” said Dr. Nelson. “These regional research centers located across the country serve to better protect the population while at the same time conducting research aimed at preventing or successfully combating a public health crisis ““ recent examples would include threats posed in the past few years by influenza, West Nile virus and SARS.”

Members of the PNWRCE will work closely with public health departments in all participating Northwest states in training and research. The members will also collaborate with newly funded science initiatives within the state such as the Oregon Translational Research and Drug Development Institute. OTRADI provides crucial research services to Oregon researchers involved in pharmaceutical development and will be an important partner in the research.

PNWRCE researchers will study a broad range of diseases and viruses, including Ebola, Dengue, SARS, avian and 1918 influenza, dengue fever, yellow fever, and West Nile, all of which are caused by pathogens that NIAID categorizes as A, B and C. NIAID priority pathogens in category A are the most dangerous and include Ebola and Dengue.

The PNWRCE will focus on two main areas to identify potential therapeutic targets for infectious disease: 1) research investigating defects in the immune system caused by aging, and 2) the study of disease-host interactions through newly advanced techniques in genomics and genetic analyses. Both research areas will facilitate the development of vaccines and other therapies.

Janko Nikolich-Zugich, M.D., Ph.D., an expert in the immunology of the aged, will lead theme one of the PNWRCE project, “Identifying Immune Defects in the Aged Immune Systems.” Mark Slifka, Ph.D., associate scientist, OHSU VGTI, will investigate “Yellow Fever Vaccination of the Elderly and Immune Compromised”.

“The increasing incident of newly emerging disease requires novel approaches in the development of new therapeutics,” Katze said. “Our program at the University of Washington in genomic technologies will dovetail nicely with the research proposed in the PNWRCE. We look forward to this unique collaborative effort between our two universities.”

Katze will use systems-level approaches to define potential therapeutic targets in pathogenesis and immunity, one of two major PNWRCE projects that will take place at the UW. Michael Gale Jr., UW associate professor of immunology, is the principal investigator of a second project, “Pro- and Anti-Viral Host Pathways in Flavivirus Pathogenesis.” Both the Washington National Primate Research Center at UW and the Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU will play prominent roles in the new center.

The 11 federally funded centers for excellence exist in 10 different multi-state regions of the country – regions defined by the National Institutes of Health. The northwest region (region 10) includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Two regional centers exist in region 10: the new PNWRCE based at OHSU and another previously founded center based at the University of Washington. Region 10 is the only region in the country that is home to two regional centers.

“We are delighted to participate in this NIAID program,” said Dan Dorsa, Ph.D., OHSU vice president for research. “The Northwest has some of the best immunology, virology and bacterial experts in the world, and the formation of this center provides an extraordinary opportunity to combine the expertise of these individuals in the fight against infectious disease. We also feel that this partnership with the University of Washington will provide the seed for future opportunities between our two institutions.”

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