PULLMAN, Wash. — The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded nearly $10 million to an eight-member team of Washington State University researchers who are seeking ways to protect the safety of the nation’s food and water supply.

The long-standing interdisciplinary group of researchers will conduct research and develop products to rapidly identify, prevent and treat food- and waterborne disease agents, such as E. coli, listeria and salmonella.

The funding comes as a direct result of more than a decade of the WSU group’s productivity in food safety funded by a broad spectrum of public and private agencies. Recently, this support also included the Washington State Legislature’s 2000 Safe Food Initiative. The federal contract represents one of the largest returns ever on a state investment in research.

“This contract will provide an important opportunity for our researchers to expand their work in helping protect homeland security and the safety of our food and water supply,” said WSU President V. Lane Rawlins. “I’m pleased that the NIH has recognized the outstanding research we have already done in this area and is helping leverage the investments our state and our university have made.”

The animal and human disease research group at WSU is part of the new NIAID national Food and Waterborne Diseases Integrated Research Network. The network will integrate research and product development activities of multiple medical and veterinary units around the country. In the event of a national or regional public health threat, the new WSU unit can be re-directed by the NIAID project officer to respond and direct its research efforts toward specific disease agents.

WSU was one of only five such units awarded contracts by NIAID. Nationally, all of the funded units will develop coordinated work groups increasing the nation’s capacity to better prevent, treat and control food- and waterborne diseases. From a national perspective, the enhanced capabilities of local, state and federal public health and regulatory agencies is viewed as an essential part of the nation’s biodefense system.

The federally funded contract totaling $9,926,693 will come from the NIAID in annual increments over the next seven years to what will be known as the Zoonoses [pronounced ZOE-oh-no-sees] Research Unit, or ZRU.

“This contract between the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine and the National Institutes of Health is testament to the value returned on the state’s investment in food safety and to the world class value of our faculty.  The grant supports a multidisciplinary approach to disease research and prevention, with colleagues in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics as well as the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering working with those in the College of Veterinary Medicine to investigate a number of zoonotic food borne diseases, said Warwick Bayly, dean of the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

“They will utilize a variety of the latest technologies, from GPS systems to microbial genomics, in their efforts to study and control these diseases from every angle. This integration of research provides Washington with extraordinary safeguards, trade advantages and the ability to have some of the world’s best disease researchers working on our behalf,” Bayly said.

Among the disease-causing agents which may be studied at WSU are:

E. coli O157:H7 is well known as a potential ground beef, raw vegetable, fruit juice and produce contaminant. It has caused illness and death as an emerging cause of food-borne illness. An estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occur in the United States each year due to E. coli contamination.

Listeria is a bacteria that causes a total body infection via the blood, an inflammation of the brain and its covering, and in pregnant women a uterine infection and abortion. Listeria has been associated with such foods as raw milk, improperly pasteurized fluid milk, cheeses (particularly soft-ripened varieties), ice cream, raw vegetables, fermented raw-meat sausages, raw and cooked poultry, raw meats, and raw and smoked fish. There are currently more than 1,600 cases of listeriosis with 415 deaths per year on average in the United States. It is the second deadliest human food-borne pathogen after Salmonella and ahead of botulism.

Other toxin-producing strains of common bacteria and anti-microbial resistant strains of important disease causing microorganisms.

Salmonella bacteria strains that are resistant to anti-microbial agents have become a worldwide health problem. A distinct strain of salmonella known as DT104, is resistant to many antibiotics and has become a major cause of illness in humans and animals worldwide but especially in Europe and the United Kingdom.  Salmonella is well known by most consumers and can cause typhoid fever, paratyphoid fever, blood poisoning and food poisoning. These pathogens not only can be the agent behind life-threatening illness, but can cause chronic disease as well. The diseases caused by salmonella are highly contagious and can easily be transmitted from contaminated food or infected pets, to humans, depending on the disease.

The WSU College of Veterinary Medicine will administer the contract. Faculty from the College of Engineering and Architecture and the Agricultural Research Center may also share significant portions of the funding. 

The WSU ZRU will coordinate activities with the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at WSU, the Washington State Department of Health, the USDA Agricultural Research Service Animal Disease Research Unit in Pullman and with multiple WSU departments.

Veterinary Professor Dale Hancock, a disease outbreak investigation specialist in the WSU veterinary college’s Field Disease Investigation Unit (FDIU), is the Principal Investigator for the contract.

Other members of the contract team may include Tom Besser, veterinary microbiologist and laboratory services director for the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory; Assistant Professor Douglas Call, a molecular epidemiologist for the WSU Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology; Rowland Cobbold, an assistant professor and veterinary microbiologist with the FDIU; Professor Lawrence Fox, a microbiologist and specialist in mastitis control in the FDIU; Professor Clive Gay, director of the FDIU and head of production medicine at WSU’s veterinary college; John Gay, WSU associate professor and epidemiologist in the FDIU; Frank Loge, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Dan Rice, research supervisor within FDIU who coordinates laboratory activities.

[Editor’s Note:  This project has been funded in whole or in part with federal funds from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, under Contract No. N01-AI-30055. The contract will be financed 100 percent with federal funds, the exact dollar amount of the contract is $9,926,693.]