Jan. 9, 2017

$10M CDC grant funds center to fight vector borne diseases

Ticks
Kent Loeffler/Provided
Black legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), pictured here, transmit Lyme disease. From left, an adult female, a nymph, and an adult male. A sesame seed to the right shows the scale.

Managing mosquito-borne viruses, such as West Nile, Dengue, Zika and tick-borne Lyme disease have been a challenge due to lack of resources, knowledge and trained expertise.

To better understand, prevent and treat diseases passed from insects to people, the Cornell-led Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases will launch later this month, thanks to a $10 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The center will offer a new master’s program and develop new courses for Cornell’s Master of Public Health degree to educate a cadre of vector biologists and public health practitioners. The center will also fund applied research while forging unique collaborations between academic institutions and public health organizations.

Cornell will serve as the hub for a team of medical entomologists, virologists, epidemiologists, ecologists, modelers and molecular biologists, under the direction of entomology professor Laura Harrington. These experts come from across Cornell (Department of Entomology, College of Veterinary Medicine and the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory, Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station, New York State Integrated Pest Management and Cornell Cooperative Extension); Connecticut (Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and Connecticut Department of Health); other universities (Columbia and Fordham); and the New York State Department of Health, including the Wadsworth Center.

The Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases will partly focus on conducting applied research to better prevent, control, monitor, track and respond to vector-borne disease outbreaks, such as Zika and Lyme.

“There is little funding that is allocated for very practical vector biology and vector borne diseases research,” Harrington said. The center will explore whether currently used control strategies for vector insects are effective in the region, design new control practices, and investigate fundamental insect vector ecology and patterns of disease transmission in the region to develop better risk prevention strategies.

The center will have six applied research areas, called clusters, that include predicting current and future infection risks in the region; investigating mosquito trapping methods; novel vector-pathogen interactions; overwintering biology of vectors including climate change-induced effects; controlling and managing vectors; and basic field biology of mosquito vectors.

Beginning in fall 2018, the center will offer a new master’s degree in public health entomology through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Several of the new courses developed for the program will also be available for students in the new Master of Public Health program administered by the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Our goal is to train the next generation to have the best possible knowledge and skills that they can apply to introduced threats or existing vector-borne disease threats,” Harrington said.

Students accepted into the master’s in public health entomology program will have their tuition and fees covered, and will be placed into a 10-week summer internship with a state public-health unit in the northeast, Harrington said.

The center will also offer a one-day, intensive “vector biology boot camp” training for professionals and short summer courses, she said.

The program will integrate with the Cornell Institute of Host-Microbe Interactions and Disease, launching in early 2017 and run by entomology professor Brian Lazzaro.

Co-principal investigators include: Theodore Andreadis, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station; Bryon Backenson, research scientist and deputy director for disease control at the New York State Department of Health; Laura Kramer, director of the Arbovirus Laboratories at the Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, and professor of biomedical sciences at the University at Albany; and Maria Diuk-Wasser, associate professor of ecology, evolution and environmental biology at Columbia University.

The CDC awarded four $10 million grants. The others went to the University of Florida, the University of Texas–Galveston and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, each of which will form their own Vector Borne Disease Regional Centers for Excellence. The funding is part of $184 million awarded by the CDC to states, territories, local jurisdictions and universities to support efforts to fight Zika virus infection and related health outcomes, including microencephaly and other serious birth defects.