UGA researchers receive $1.1 million Department of Defense grant


Researchers at the University of Georgia have received a three-year $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a vaccine to protect against glanders and melioidosis, pathogens that pose potential risks as biological weapons.

Bacteriologist Eric Lafontaine and immunologist Jeff Hogan, both in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are co-principal investigators on the grant, which will test whether vaccination can protect mice in an aerosol (airborne) model of infection. Their work will be conducted at UGA’s Animal Health Research Center, a state-of-the-art facility where scientists conduct basic and applied research on vaccines, diagnostic tests and treatments for diseases that infect animals as well as humans.

“These bacteria can infect by gaining entry through the nose and mouth and then adhering to the mucosal linings of the respiratory tract,” said Lafontaine. “Essentially we’re trying to identify the proteins that make the bacterium stick and then trying to counteract their ability to attach and cause infection.”

Glanders and melioidosis are infectious diseases caused by bacteria of the genus Burkholderia. Both pathogens have been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “Category B” biological agents, defined as “moderately easy to disseminate and causing moderate morbidity and low mortality.” And both have been identified by the Department of Health and Human Services as “top priorities for development of medical countermeasures.”

“The [U.S.] Department of Defense has a successful track record of vaccine development,” said Hogan. “For example, they’ve funded the research that led to vaccines for anthrax, Rift Valley fever, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. The process we develop for glanders and melioidiosis would be applicable to other microbes as well.”

“We are proud to partner with the Department of Defense in developing vaccines for these potentially contagious diseases,” said Dean Sheila Allen of the College of Veterinary Medicine. “This is exactly the type of work the Animal Health Research Center was designed to conduct.”

Glanders, caused by the bacterium Burkholderia mallei, is endemic in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America. It is primarily a disease affecting horses, donkeys and mules. It can also infect goats, dogs and cats. Though rare in humans, cases do occur sporadically among individuals who have direct contact with infected animals. Very few bacteria are necessary to cause infection, which begins with flu-like symptoms that progress to more acute phases, including localized pus-forming skin lesions, pulmonary and/or bloodstream infections.

Glanders was used in bio-warfare experiments during both world wars. Unlike melioidosis, glanders is somewhat limited as an agent of bio-warfare because the pathogen cannot survive outside its single-hoofed host.

Melioidosis, caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, is endemic to Southeast Asia and Northern Australia. It can infect animals and humans through the skin, ingestion or inhalation after contact with contaminated water and soils. While several countries studied the potential of B. pseudomallei, it has never been used as a bio-weapon. Early symptoms are flu-like but progress to acute respiratory and bloodstream infections. It is deadly unless recognized and treated early and aggressively with antibiotics.


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