Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases cause immense threats to the health of people, animals, and plants worldwide; we are experiencing this first-hand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the global community.

Many emerging infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, are complex and require interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary team approaches to solve the problems.

"Three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people are zoonotic, meaning they come from animals. Disease cases transmitted from vectors such as mosquitos and ticks to people more than doubled between 2004 and 2018 in the United States”, said X.J. Meng, founding director of the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens and University Distinguished Professor of Virology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Pilot grants were recently awarded to 10 interdisciplinary research teams to tackle some of these complex zoonotic and vector-borne emerging infectious disease problems. The funded projects this year range from studying the biology and ecology of Lyme disease to COVID-19 transmission, from developing novel technologies to detect foodborne and emerging pathogens to developing antiviral drugs, and from studying the biology and ecology of disease-causing mosquitoes to developing vaccines against important viruses.

These pilot grants were funded by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. This is a collaboration between Fralin Life Sciences Institute and Agency 229, through the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens.

The Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station’s (VAES) mission is to address the challenges that the people in the Commonwealth of Virginia and society at large are faced with.

“VAES is putting a significant focus on developing interdisciplinary approaches to solving societal issues, as we believe the solution for many of these challenges lies at the intersection of various disciplines. We are very excited about the establishment of the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens that brings together faculty from a variety of disciplines to tackle these challenges,” said Saied Mostaghimi, director of Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The goal of this pilot grant program is to build interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research teams in the broad area of infectious diseases by taking advantage of the diverse faculty expertise within the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens to tackle the important problems in infectious diseases, leading to collaborative extramural grant submissions.

“The Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens at Virginia Tech plans to become a national and international leader in advancing transformative science and developing effective countermeasures against emerging infectious diseases, and these team-building pilot grants will help researchers come together to tackle some of the most pressing and complex problems in infectious disease,” said Matt Hulver, executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

The investigators will use the funds to build collaborative research teams across disciplines within the center and to generate preliminary data that will result in the submission of an extramural collaborative grant application by July 2022.

“Funding this interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary pilot grant program is one of the aspects that makes this center unique, as it spans from disease vector to animal reservoir, from social science to engineering science approaches of tackling infectious diseases, and from animal and plant pathogen to human pathogen,” said Meng.

The Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens received 23 highly collaborative cross-disciplinary strong proposals for the program this year. A team of 12 center-affiliated senior faculty members reviewed and scored the proposals, and the Center Advisory Committee approved the funding recommendation for these 10 cross-disciplinary teams:

Evaluating the safety and efficacy of a novel vaccine strategy for Cache Valley virus

Development of engineered yeasts to concentrate and purify foodborne viruses for easier detection

  • Juhong Chen (Primary Investigator, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/College of Engineering)
  • Clay Wright (Co-PI, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/College of Engineering)
  • Lijuan Yuan (Co-PI, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine)
  • Matthew Moore (Co-PI, University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Aerosol transmission potential of SARS-CoV-2 in exhaled breath

The effect of forest degradation on mosquito arboviruses

Relationship between Lyme disease and land-form variables

  • Luis Escobar (Primary Investigator, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, College of Natural Resources and Environment)
  • Gillian Eastwood (Co-PI, Department of Entomology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)
  • Mark Ford (Co-PI, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, College of Natural Resources and Environment)

Reprogramming the peptidoglycan cell-wall of Borrelia burgdorferi to understand, treat, and cure chronic Lyme disease

  • Brandon Jutras (Primary Investigator, Department of Biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)
  • Coy Allen (Co-PI, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine)
  • Pablo Sobrado (Co-I, Department of Biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)
  • Rich Helm (Co-I, Department of Biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

RACING: Developing a rapid assay using CRISPR, artificial intelligence, and nanopore meta-genome sequencing for emerging pathogen detection

  • Song Li (Primary Investigator, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)
  • Juhong Chen (Co-PI, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences/College of Engineering)
  • Boris Vinatzer (Co-PI, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

Optimization of salicylamide analogs for combating multidrug-resistant Neisseria Gonorrhoeae

  • Mohamed Seleem (Primary Investigator, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine)
  • Paul R. Carlier (Co-PI, Department of Chemistry, College of Science)

Developing antiviral polymers to inhibit norovirus infection

  • Michael Schulz (Primary Investigator, Department of Chemistry, College of Science)
  • Lijuan Yuan (Co-PI, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine)

Effects of altered larval growing conditions on the vectorial capacity of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes

  • Clément Vinauger (Primary Investigator, Biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)
  • Lauren Childs (Co-PI, Mathematics, College of Science)
  • James Weger-Lucarelli (Co-I, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine)