URI researchers awarded $11.4 million grant to continue study of mosquito-borne illness

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – August 5, 2013 – University of Rhode Island Research Professor Alan Rothman and colleagues in the Institute for Immunology and Informatics have been awarded $11.4 million from the National Institutes of Health for ongoing research on dengue virus, a potentially deadly mosquito-borne disease.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of the world’s population lives in areas where transmission of the dengue virus is common. It is a member of the flavivirus family that includes mosquito-borne viruses like West Nile virus, and it’s a major cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics, with as many as 100 million people infected yearly and 20,000 deaths.

The new funding will be dedicated to a combination of field studies and laboratory research. The NIH-funded program began in 1994 with Rothman taking over as program director in 2008. This latest award will provide funding for an additional five years of research.

“This is tremendously important research that may well have a global impact on the health and well-being of millions of people,” said URI President David M. Dooley. “It also demonstrates the vital contributions being made by our life sciences researchers in Providence and their partners in the Knowledge District and beyond.”

Rothman joined the URI faculty in 2011 and has been involved in research on immunity and pathogenesis of viral diseases in humans for more than 20 years. He heads the Laboratory of Viral Immunity and Pathogenesis at URI’s Institute for Immunology and Informatics on the Providence campus. Rothman’s research involves clinical and basic research studies on pathogenesis and immunity of emerging and re-emerging viral infections.

Dengue is a significant global public health burden, particularly in resource-poor regions of the world, Rothman said. While the death rate from dengue is less than one percent globally, additional research is necessary to address the high number of new infections that occur each year.

Field studies for the project will be conducted by collaborators in Thailand and the Philippines who will look at natural dengue virus transmission in humans. This research will also include collaboration with a phase-three vaccine trial. Laboratory research will take place in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Collaborators are from several American universities including URI, Brown, University of Massachusetts Medical School, University of Buffalo and Upstate Medical University. The United States Army’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences in Bangkok, Thailand, and a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company will also participate in the project.

“This is a disease that has a significant global impact, so there’s a need — both for people living in endemic countries as well as for travelers to the region — to improve approaches to identify, treat and prevent it,” Rothman said.

Working alongside Rothman on the project in Rhode Island will be URI Assistant Research Professor Carey Medin and Jennifer Friedman of Rhode Island Hospital.

“I am pleased URI has been awarded this federal grant to continue critical research into the origins of the dengue virus and help develop a vaccine. Insect-borne viruses like dengue can be just a plane ride away. This federal funding will hopefully help researchers prevent the spread of the virus in countries where it is endemic and protect Americans,” said Senator Jack Reed, a member of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal funding for NIH programs.

“This grant is a testament to Rhode Island’s ongoing leadership in cutting-edge medical research,” added Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “I congratulate Dr. Rothman and his team at URI for this award, and I look forward to the results of their work to better understand this deadly disease.”

“I congratulate University of Rhode Island Professor Alan Rothman and his colleagues on being awarded more than $11 million in federal grant funding through the National Institutes of Health for the study of dengue virus,” said U.S. Representative David Cicilline. “I look forward to continuing to support cutting-edge research like the kind demonstrated through this study by Professor Rothman.”

“Congratulations to Professor Rothman and his colleagues on receiving this grant to enhance and further their key research at the University of Rhode Island,” Governor Lincoln D. Chafee said. “The strong minds at URI are one of Rhode Island’s valuable assets, and I am pleased that the National Institutes of Health is making an investment in one of our institutions of higher education and the future of our state.”