Associate Professor Meenakshi Malik has been awarded a three-year research grant totaling $480,000 to expand her study of Francisella tularensis, a bacterium that causes a potentially fatal disease called tularemia. The grant is being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The grant is the “competing continuation” of a previously-funded NIH research grant that Dr. Malik received in 2013. Competing continuations of NIH grants are difficult to secure, with renewal decisions indicative of significant contributions to the peer reviewed literature during the previous grant period (see below).
Another area evaluated in determining whether to renew a grant is the investigator’s ability to train undergraduate and graduate students in these fields. Dr. Malik, who is a member of the Department of Basic and Clinical Sciences, has a long history of mentoring students in the lab, and this new grant will enable more ACPHS students to gain meaningful research experience, especially those in the College’s B.S. in Microbiology and M.S. in Molecular Biosciences programs.
“Highest Risk to the Public and National Security”
Francisella tularensis has been classified by the Centers for Disease Control as a Category A bioterrorism agent. Organisms or toxins in this class are defined as “posing the highest risk to the public and national security.” Other Category A agents include pathogens causing anthrax, plague, and smallpox.
Francisella tularensis is particularly dangerous because it can be easily aerosolized and survive in small droplets for prolonged periods of time. If infected and left untreated, the mortality rate can be as high as 60%. Currently, there is no FDA approved vaccine for preventing tularemia.
Initial NIH-funded Project (2013 - 2016)
If someone becomes infected by a disease-causing organism, the body’s immune system instinctively responds as the first line of defense. But with Francisella tularensis, the immune response is effectively muted in the first 48-72 hours following infection, thereby inhibiting the body’s ability to successfully fight off the bacterium.
The focus of Dr. Malik’s first NIH grant was to explore how Francisella tularensis stifles the immune system and try to determine what causes the protective immune response to “kick in” after this initial period.
Over the course of this grant, Dr. Malik’s lab found several genetic factors that play a role in temporarily disabling the body’s initial immune response to a Francisella tularensis infection. Upon identifying these factors, Dr. Malik removed the genes encoding these factors from the bacterium and saw the immune response improve – an encouraging sign that may begin to point the way towards the development of a vaccine.
Over the period of the grant, she authored six publications in peer reviewed journals including Molecular Microbiology and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Five different ACPHS undergraduate and graduate students earned listings as co-authors on the six publications. Her findings and related publications in part led the NIH committee who reviewed her new grant application to write, “the productivity during the last project period [was] outstanding.”
New NIH-funded Project (2016 – 2019)
The human body has two types of immune responses to an infection: (1) innate immunity and (2) adaptive immunity. Innate immunity is a general immune response that begins at the onset of any infection and typically continues for 5-7 days. After this initial period, the body begins developing antibody and “cell-mediated” immune responses that are targeted towards the specific infection; this is adaptive immunity.
Until recently, it was believed that these immune responses were two separate actions, but a growing body of evidence now suggests that the innate immune response plays an important role in shaping the adaptive immune responses.
Dr. Malik will focus her efforts over the next three years on studying the connection between the innate and adaptive immune responses in Francisella tularensis infections. Specifically, she will seek to determine if an improved innate immune response can lead to a more effective adaptive immune response, and ultimately, help in the development of an effective vaccine against tularemia.
In parallel with these efforts, she will continue searching for additional factors that may be responsible for muting the body’s initial immune response to a Francisella tularensis infection.
Quote from Dr. Malik
“The challenge with Francisella tularensis is that very little is still known about how this bacterium causes immune suppression. As soon as we discover a few factors responsible for muting the body’s immune responses, we find out that this pathogen possesses multiple redundant mechanisms to circumvent our actions and shut down the body’s defense systems. It has been challenging to understand these mechanisms, but we are making progress.”
Quote from NIH Grant Review Committee
“Results [of Dr. Malik’s research] could have a major impact on the development of immunotherapies and vaccines against this select agent (Francisella tularensis) … The enthusiasm is very high for this application from an outstanding investigator.”
Research reported in this press release was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under award number 2R15AI107698-02. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
About Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
Founded in 1881, Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences is a private, independent institution with a long tradition of academic and research excellence. The College is committed to educating the next generation of leaders in the health care professions and translating scientific discoveries into therapies that benefit humankind. In addition to its doctor of pharmacy program, ACPHS offers five bachelor’s programs and five graduate programs in the health sciences. The College has campuses in Albany, New York and Colchester, Vermont. For more information, please visit www.acphs.edu.
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