Scientists receive $2.5 million grant to combat South American-borne deadly disease

A George Mason University researcher is heading a scientific team that has received a sizable Department of Defense grant to combat the threat of a South American-borne disease that can cause long-term neurological problems and even death.

Kylene Kehn-Hall, an associate professor in Mason's School of Systems Biology within the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, is collaborating with scientists from the University of Maryland and QIAGEN, a worldwide provider of molecular technologies and genomics analysis solutions, on a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the hopes of developing remedies to the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV). The disease, which attacks the neurons of the brain, can be fatal, but often causes brain swelling that can leave those infected with long-term neurological issues such as seizures and personality disorders.

"The virus has no cure and can be easily aerosolized and weaponized," said Kehn-Hall, whose team includes the University of Maryland's Jonathan Dinman and QIAGEN's Jonathan Jacobs. "I would like to identify specific targets for the therapeutic countermeasures and show in a mouse model that we can prevent this disease."

Kehn-Hall and her team hope to lay the foundation for an eventual therapeutic treatment by identifying transcriptomic (RNA-based) and proteomic (protein-based) events that help the virus attack and kill brain neurons. The goal of the research is to identify the mosquito-borne pathogen's pathways to those brain cells and develop a solution that prevents the virus' growth.

"When brain cells die, bad things happen," Dinman said. "Our goal is to come up with a remedy that won't stop the virus, but one that will stop this pathology."

VEEV, which was first identified in Venezuela, often manifests itself in the form of flu-like symptoms such as high fevers, headaches, encephalitis and even death. Those with weaker immune systems, such as the very young and elderly, frequently become severely ill or die from the virus following exposure.

A large-scale outbreak of the disease occurred in Columbia in September 1995, resulting in more than 14,000 human cases and 26 deaths, according to media reports. The threat of VEEV has recently become more pronounced as the mosquitoes who carry the virus extend their reach, driven primarily by increases in globalization and rising temperatures from global climate change. Jacobs and his colleagues recently detected and sequenced a sub-type of VEEV in the Florida Everglades, but it was fortunately found in mosquitoes that do not typically feed on humans.

"It's important from a public health standpoint," Kehn-Hall said. "There are still people who get this virus on an annual basis."


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