PULLMAN — Wendy C. Brown, a professor and veterinary immunologist in Washington State University’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology, has received a grant of nearly $1.9 million from the National Institutes of Health.

Brown will use the five years of uninterrupted funding lasting through May 2013 to continue her internationally recognized studies of immunity to transport systems related to the disease-causing capabilities of Gram negative bacteria.  Her work will be part of the landmark effort included in the $25 million Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded School for Global Animal Health at WSU. 

This recent funding comes through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the NIH.  This is Brown’s fourth successful NIH grant.

“Dr. Brown’s acquisition of a major grant from NIH in today’s funding climate documents the international regard for her world class leadership in animal infectious disease research,” said David Prieur, professor and chair of the WSU Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology.  “This grant builds on her past successes and will have a major impact on the prevention of infectious diseases of animals worldwide while at the same time moving forward WSU’s extraordinary animal health research program.”

Disease-causing organisms can have several systems for transporting various substances, most notably proteins, across cell membranes and into a host cell.  Transportation of these colloquially termed “molecules of virulence,” into a host cell is in part what makes an organism so infectious and leads to disease. 

Brown and her co-workers study a microorganism that is known to be among the most costly causes of cattle disease worldwide.  The specific bacterium under study is Anaplasma marginale and is carried by ticks.  Australian authorities place the cost of anaplasmosis (an-uh-plaz-MO’-sis) worldwide at more than $500 million annually.

The disease-causing organism is a rickettsia (rih-KETT’-see-uh), a bacteria that must invade, grow and reproduce inside normal cells in order to produce disease.  This cycle is similar to the requirements needed by viruses to cause disease.

Typically, an animal’s body will detect and build antibodies against many invading organisms thereby providing the animal with some level of immunity.  Vaccines work by provoking the immune system to respond to a challenge (the vaccine) and create immunity within an inoculated animal.  In most cases, the chemicals that trigger immune system recognition are proteins, called antigens that are on or in the invading microorganism.  The immune response can occur from a number of immune system cells and subsequent immunity is most often provided by proteins called antibodies.

Brown will look specifically at the response of a type of white blood cell known as a T-cell. For a number of reasons, it has been difficult to develop a cost-effective, stable vaccine for Anaplasma.  Brown and her co-workers are screening a specific group of proteins in the microorganism’s Type IV secretion system; part of the mechanism that conveys the so-called “molecules of virulence.”  Their goal is to find one or more proteins belonging to the organism that can be exploited to produce a high-quality vaccine that then provides exceptional immunity for cattle by way of the T-cells in its immune system.

Her approach is facilitated by an ability to isolate and screen quickly an incredibly large number of Anaplasma proteins for their ability to provoke an immune response.  Not only has her success to date been promising, but it has also produced crucial information for building vaccines for other rickettsia.

In 2004, Brown was awarded the Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist Award by the Veterinary Immunology Committee of the International Union of Immunological Societies.  The prestigious award is granted every three years and is considered to recognize the best veterinary immunologist in the world during that period.