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Conference and Research Awards Boost Study of Emerging Infectious Diseases

Vaccines, antibiotics, and other breakthroughs in medicine in this century did much to reign in the scourge of infectious disease. But recent factors such as increases in global travel, greater populations of immunocompromised individuals, and development of new strains of infectious agents have brought about a re-emergence of many diseases. In addition, new diseases, from Lyme and Legionnaire’s disease to the Ebola virus, are being recognized.

Among the College researchers addressing these issues, Drs. Roberto Docampo and Silvia Moreno, of veterinary pathobiology, have stepped into the limelight recently. Both were organizers, along with Dr. Richard Isaacson, of the Second Annual Conference on New and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases, held May 20 and 21 at the College. And both were awarded major research grants from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. 

Dr. Silvia Moreno received a three-year, $210,000 Burroughs Wellcome New Investigator in Molecular Parasitology Award for her work on pyrophosphate metabolism in Toxoplasma gondii. T. gondii is one of the most widespread intracellular parasites in the world, infecting animals and people and causing birth defects when it infects pregnant women. Dr. Moreno’s laboratory is studying the biochemical changes that occur when the parasite invades the host cell in order to find ways to inhibit infection. She believes pyrophosphate analogs offer potential for killing the parasite without damaging the host cells.

New and Emerging Disease Conference
Dr. Thomas R. Shryock, of Elanco Animal Health (third from left), was one of the speakers at the Second Annual Conference on New and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases, held in May. Conference organizers (from left) were Drs. Silvia Moreno, Roberto Docampo, and Richard Isaacson.

Dr. Roberto Docampo’s group discovered in their work with Trypanosomas a new organelle, which they named the acidocalcisome because it is acidic and calcium plays an important role in its function. His laboratory is investigating how pH and calcium balance are maintained by this cell body. Because the organelle is unique to parasitic organisms, medical therapies may eventually be developed that target parasites through this organelle and do not affect host cells. Dr. Docampo received a two-year $100,000 Burroughs Wellcome New Initiatives in Malaria Research Award to extend his study of acidocalcisomes to Plasmodium spp, the agent that causes malaria. 

The 1999 Conference on New and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases attracted more than 100 researchers. Its goal is to stimulate interdisciplinary research initiatives and to call attention to the problems of infectious disease, such as malaria, tuberculosis, candidiasis, and transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Speakers came from university and government research centers across the country, and posters were presented by graduate students from a number of Midwest research institutions. Sponsorship for the program came from the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research (C-FAR) and Elanco Animal Health, Eli Lilly and Co., as well as from units within the College.

Drs. Docampo and Moreno, both from Argentina, are among several married couples on the College faculty. Dr. Docampo received an M.D. and Ph.D. in medicine (biochemistry) from the University of Buenos Aires and a Ph.D in microbiology from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Dr. Moreno completed her studies at the University of Buenos Aires with additional postdoctoral research through the National Institutes of Health and at The Rockefeller University in New York City. The pair came to Illinois in 1990.