USA faculty member receives $2.59 million grant to study infection dynamics of an emerging tick-borne virus
MOBILE, Alabama (Aug. 11, 2022) Tick-borne infections can lead to serious illnesses – and even death – in people and pets. To create effective treatments for these diseases, scientists first must figure out the basic infection biology of the ticks they study.
Researchers at the University of South Alabama plan to use a $2.59 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to do just that, laying the groundwork for developing a way to stop transmission of an emerging tick-borne virus native to Asia.
Meghan Hermance, Ph.D., an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Frederick P. Whiddon College of Medicine at USA, recently received the five-year award to study the infection dynamics of a tick-borne bunyavirus called severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome virus or SFTSV. Thrombocytopenia means low platelet count.
An emerging tick-borne disease caused by the bunyavirus, SFTSV is transmitted by the Haemaphysalis longicornis tick. While the tick is native to East Asia, it recently spread to the United States and beyond, establishing invasive populations.
The rising incidence of SFTSV cases in Asia, lack of specific treatment strategies, high case fatality rates, and global expansion of the tick vector make the virus a public health concern. Because of its ability to cause hemorrhagic disease and lack of specific treatment strategies, SFTSV is considered a priority infectious disease by the World Health Organization.
“One major focus of this research is to understand how the bunyavirus survives the molting process between tick life stages and the timeline during which the virus disseminates between organs within the tick body,” Hermance said. “In other words, we want to determine where does the virus reside in the tick body before it ends up in the tick salivary glands and ultimately gets transmitted to the next host the tick feeds on.”
A second focus of the research is to define the minimum amount of time an infected tick needs to feed in order to transmit the bunyavirus to a vertebrate host, Hermance said, noting that she and her colleagues also will examine the initial immune response that occurs in the host's skin at the feeding site of the infected tick.
Collaborators on the research project are Jason Strickland, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biology at USA with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Whiddon College of Medicine; and Thuy Phung, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Medical Director of Molecular Genetic Pathology & Dermatopathology.