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Brucellosis research bolstered by $2.75 million NIH grant

Four cows in a green pasture looking over a fence.
Also known as Mediterranean fever, brucellosis is caused by the bacterium Brucella abortus, and cattle are the primary host.

A $2.75 million grant will allow researchers at Washington State University to explore how bacterial proteins work together to cause one of the world’s most widespread diseases transferred from animals to humans.

Also known as Mediterranean fever, brucellosis is caused by the bacterium Brucella abortus, and cattle are the primary host.

Spread to humans through unpasteurized dairy products and close animal contact, symptoms include fever, weight loss, joint pain and, in severe cases, central nervous system and heart inflammation. 

The multi-million-dollar grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health will focus on four of the several proteins known to infiltrate host cells.

The grant comes on the heels of the lab characterizing a protein known as BspF that manipulates specific cell functions and steals nutrients required for the bacteria to grow and multiply.

Researchers will examine the individual functions of the select proteins and how they work together to help the infection persist.

“Understanding the way those bacteria function cannot be determined by one bacterial protein function; you need to know how they all work together,” said Professor Jean Celli, of the WSU Paul G. Allen School for Global Health, whose lab was awarded the grant. “When you understand what host functions are required for the disease to develop, you can target those to prevent the disease from happening, but right now we need to find out how everything works.”

Celli said the research dollars may lead to ways to block the disease, by identifying and blocking of a step in the cellular processes that the bacterium is dependent on to grow.

While antibiotics can treat brucellosis and the disease is essentially eradicated in the United States due to vaccine use in animals, the vaccine is not permitted for human use and the disease is endemic in much of the world. Due to the threat of antibiotic resistance from bacterial mutation, new, affordable control strategies targeting the host are necessary.

“It’s not only a human health concern, it’s an animal health concern,” Celli said. “There is a big need to understand how this disease develops so we can find ways to mitigate it.”

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