Medical College of Wisconsin researcher to investigate interaction between pathogen and lung cells
The Medical College of Wisconsin received a two-year award for more than $400,000 from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study how the bacterium causing tularemia, or rabbit fever, interacts with lung cells to facilitate infection.
Thomas Zahrt, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, is the principal investigator for the grant.
The bacteria Francisella tularensis is transmitted to humans through dog ticks, wood ticks, the lone star tick, and deer flies, as well as by handling infected animals. The most severe form of the disease, pneumonic tularemia, is spread by the inhalation of dust or aerosols contaminated with the F. tularensis bacteria, and can result in a 50% mortality rate without treatment. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 120 cases of tularemia occur in the United States each year. However, due to its low infectious dose and ease of spread by aerosol, F. tularensis has been classified by the CDC as a potential agent of bioterrorism. Currently, there is no licensed vaccine against this bacterium.
This study will investigate interactions between lung tissue cells, called alveolar type I and type II cells, and F. tularensis. Based on recent studies, Dr. Zahrt hypothesizes that these specific types of lung tissue may provide a sanctuary that helps the infectious bacteria replicate and survive the immune system response.
The findings from this research will help fill a knowledge gap regarding the interaction between this bacteria and components of the respiratory system, and further our understanding of bacteria-induced pneumonia and associated lung inflammation. Additionally, the study’s results may reveal new targets for therapies or contribute to development of a vaccine to prevent or combat tularemia.