New URI researcher aims to ease suffering from dengue fever

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Tropical disease affects millions in developing countries

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – October 24, 2011 — Dengue fever is not well known in the United States, but a new member of the faculty of the University of Rhode Island has devoted 24 years of his life to studying the dangerous tropical disease, and he hopes his efforts will help to ease the suffering of the millions of people who contract it in the developing world.

Dr. Alan Rothman, a research professor in the URI Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, will continue his research on the disease under an $11 million grant he received while working at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. He was attracted to URI because of its Institute for Immunology and Informatics, a research lab at the University’s Feinstein Providence Campus known for its studies of tropical diseases, and the lab’s co-director Annie De Groot.

“Annie and I were both program directors for similar grants within a certain program at the National Institutes for Health,” explained Rothman, who grew up in Brooklyn and lives in Framingham, Mass. “So once I decided to make a move and started reaching out to people in New England, she was a logical person to contact because she had this program here. It’s a perfect fit for my research.”

Dengue fever is not usually fatal, but it can be debilitating. Rothman said that many of those suffering from the disease say the symptoms are similar to a bad case of the flu, with fever, bad headaches and achiness all over. “One common name for it is breakbone fever—you feel absolutely miserable like you are going to die but you don’t,” he said.

The disease is known in the U.S. primarily from people who travel to the tropics and are bitten by disease-carrying mosquitoes.

“In principle there are mosquitoes that could transmit dengue almost as far north as the Great Lakes,” Rothman added, “but there are a lot of reasons the danger of transmission in the U.S. is low, including water and waste management, urban planning, and high air conditioning use compared to other countries.”

While much of the existing research at the Institute for Immunology and Informatics is focused on developing vaccines for tropical diseases, Rothman said that road will be difficult for combating dengue, which involves four different viruses, necessitating the development of four vaccines.

Another stumbling block to the development of a dengue fever vaccine is that there are no animal models on which to test a vaccine, so researchers would need a great deal of evidence that a vaccine was safe and would work before it could be tested on humans.

Rothman says he sees himself not as a vaccine developer but more as an immunologist who facilitates vaccine development. “Almost all of the vaccines we use draw on natural examples where the immune system is good, so we know what to aim for,” he said. “In the case of dengue, we are still learning what to aim for, and that’s a big part of my research—trying to figure out what a vaccine should do in the first place.”

Now that the scientist has settled in at the URI lab, he is already beginning to think about hiring additional staff members to help in his research.

“What is unique here at URI is an opportunity to come into something in development where I could play a significant role in the direction that the institute would take,” Rothman said. “The people at the institute have very broad visions, and there is something special about being in a place where there is incredible aspiration.”