School of Medicine Receives $56 Million Grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

For immediate release: November 27, 2007

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Gates Foundation grant will fund research on new ways to rapidly diagnose diarrheal diseases

Researchers from the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have received a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a faster and more precise molecular test to diagnose the causes of diarrheal disease in developing countries. The funding will also enable the researchers to work on identifying new pathogens that cause these infections, which account for at least 18 percent of deaths in children under the age of five worldwide.

“A major obstacle in designing effective strategies to combat these diseases is the large number of pathogens that can make children sick,” says James P. Nataro, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics, microbiology & immunology, biochemistry & molecular biology, and medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and associate director of its Center for Vaccine Development. “The current technologies available in third-world countries for establishing the causes of diarrheal diseases are extremely cumbersome. In the United States, we have technologies that offer promise for providing rapid, sensitive and specific diagnoses in Africa and elsewhere, and we hope to adapt those strategies for use in developing countries through this grant.”

“In the United States, it is standard practice to send fecal samples to a medical laboratory and to receive a quick and accurate diagnosis of the pathogen making the person ill. A diagnosis requires a large number of tests that can be expensive and require lots of expertise and equipment,” Dr. Nataro continues. “But in sub-Saharan Africa those resources are not available, making it much more difficult to appropriately treat diarrheal diseases and understand the broader disease burden.”

For the study, Dr. Nataro and his colleagues will use computer-assisted molecular technologies to develop a single test that will detect all of the important organisms involved in diarrheal diseases in developing countries. The researchers will test fecal samples obtained from sites in Bangladesh, Mali and Kenya through a cooperative agreement with other researchers from the Center for Vaccine Development. Most importantly, the samples will not need to be fresh so that tests can be performed at laboratories a great distance from the children affected by the infections. Ultimately, fully-stocked laboratories will be established at regional centers to process fecal samples brought in from outlying areas and to facilitate global surveillance for emerging infectious diseases, such as cholera.

“Our goal is to provide a quantum leap in diagnostic technology for diarrheal diseases, so that for the first time, clinicians can quickly, comprehensively and with little on-site expertise ascertain the causes of these diseases in even the most remote of settings,” says Dr. Nataro. “If we are successful, we foresee a day when a team of investigators can enter an area with their mobile technology and quickly and accurately determine the pathogenic source of an outbreak, which will undoubtedly lead to more timely treatment and better vaccines for patients.”

The research program will also include subcontracts to Illumina, Inc., and Ibis Biosciences, a wholly owned subsidiary of Isis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., biotechnology companies in California.

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