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Worldwide challenge

With financial ­support from the Georgia Research Alliance, UGA’s ­Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases has pulled together an ­interdisciplinary team of scientists
to explore the ­nature and potential treatment of some of the world’s most ­devastating diseases

Sharron Hannon

The walls in Dan Colley’s office are covered with ­scenic photos from foreign lands. But the nature of his work for the past 30 years has involved ugly diseases that cripple and kill millions of people worldwide.

Colley is director of the University of Georgia’s ­Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, a position he took in 2002 after serving as director of the division of parasitic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

From various labs on the UGA campus, Colley and his fellow researchers explore the nature and potential treatment of some of the world’s most devastating diseases, such as malaria and African sleeping sickness. Colley terms these “orphan diseases” because although they account for a significant percentage of human deaths each year, only a relative handful of researchers are working on them.

“People tend to think that diseases like malaria have been solved,” says Colley. “They think there’s a vaccine. But there’s not.”

Another false impression is that these diseases are only a threat in underdeveloped nations. “What’s over there ­today can be here tomorrow,” he says. “In fact, some of these ­diseases have long been present in the U.S.”

The UGA faculty involved with the Center for ­Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases come from a variety of disciplines, ranging from cellular biology to genetics to entomology. Earlier this year, they welcomed a new ally in this cause: Roberto Docampo, a renowned molecular parasitologist who came to UGA from the University of Illinois.

Docampo was wooed to Georgia to fill a $1.5 million endowed chair jointly funded by the Georgia Research ­Alliance and a private donation from Atlanta businessman Sanford Orkin and his wife, Barbara. GRA also provided funds to help Docampo set up his lab.

GRA president Michael Cassidy says the alliance’s ­investment in eminent scholars is worth it. “They’re not just researchers,” he says, “they’re changing the face of science.”

Docampo’s study of organelles in bacteria, for example, was named by Discover magazine as one of the top 100 science discoveries of 2003.

Such groundbreaking work also attracts funding. Cassidy points out that the 50-plus scientists GRA has helped recruit to Georgia colleges and universities have collectively brought $2 billion in federal funds and investment capital to the state. GRA has a particular interest in recruiting experts in fields related to biology to expand the state’s life sciences ­industry—and that dovetails well with one of UGA’s major research strengths.

But recruiting respected scientists from established ­positions at other institutions is a challenge, says Colley.

“It’s much easier to recruit at the assistant professor level than for an endowed chair,” he notes, “because those people are more rooted.”

Docampo has made just two major moves in his career—leaving his native Argentina to go to the University of Illinois in 1990 and then leaving Illinois to come to UGA in 2005. In Argentina, Docampo earned an M.D. and Ph.D.s in both microbiology and medicine, and served on the faculty of the University of Buenos Aires. At Illinois, he was a full professor in the department of veterinary pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine and chair of the division of microbiology and immunology. He also was scientific director of the Center for Zoonoses Research.

Docampo’s research involves the search for metabolic pathways in parasites that may be essential for their survival but may not find an equivalent counterpart in the host. His lab has concentrated its efforts on different biochemical ­mechanisms used by parasites that cause malaria, African sleeping sickness, and Chagas Disease.

He is currently looking at ways to turn a drug commonly used for osteoporosis into a treatment for leishmaniasis, an infection spread by flies that causes disfiguring ulcers. It’s ­common in the Middle East and was contracted by more than 600 U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan last year. Treatment costs about $18,000 per soldier, but Docampo thinks a cheaper cure could be developed.

He brought with him to Georgia a team that includes two post-doctoral fellows and his wife, Silvia Moreno, an internationally recognized scientist in her own right, who also has joined the faculty at UGA. Moreno studies the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is the cause of toxoplasmosis. This pervasive parasite, which infects about 20 percent of the U.S. population, has a global, cosmopolitan distribution and can be an especially devastating disease in immuno-compromised hosts, including patients with HIV/AIDS.

Moreno’s master’s and doctoral degrees are from the ­University of Buenos Aires, and she has worked with her ­husband for many years.

“Having Roberto and Silvia as colleagues is wonderful for the center,” says Colley. “Their focus on metabolic pathways of protozoan parasites and how to utilize such knowledge for their cutting-edge drug discovery and development strongly complements the interests of our current faculty and opens avenues to develop new interests.”

Docampo says the prospect of working with his new colleagues was a key factor in his decision to make the move to Georgia. “Certainly the GRA’s offer to provide an endowment and start-up funds was important,” he says, “but another aspect was the group of faculty involved in the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases and the possibilities for collaboration and interaction that we didn’t have previously.”

Bringing together a core faculty with overlapping research interests was the motivating force when the center was established at UGA in 1998. The aim was not to focus on any one parasite or set of approaches, but to build expertise in a variety of areas. The center’s faculty reach across academic disciplines and also join forces with external agencies like the CDC, which is establishing global outposts to detect emerging diseases.

Having the capability for synergistic interaction has proven to be a formula for success in bringing in significant federal grants. The center now manages more than $18 million in grants and contracts—an increase of 101 percent over the last two years. Center members have another $10 million in grants managed by their home departments at UGA.

The awards include the renewal of an NIH Program ­Project grant that originally helped establish the center.

“The renewal was significant because it’s harder to keep a grant in the second round,” says Colley. “There’s a yardstick to measure your accomplishments. They want to know what you did.”

The new five-year, $5.6 million grant will further research aimed at developing and testing vaccines for Chagas Disease, an often-fatal illness most prevalent in South America that has worked its way to the U.S. in recent years through immigrants. Rick Tarleton, a cellular biologist and one of the founding members of the center, has focused on the disease for more than 20 years.

“It’s almost certainly being transmitted here through the blood supply, as well as through some organ transplants,” says Colley. “We don’t have a good assay for Chagas—that’s something Rick has been working on—but as soon as one is available the Red Cross will probably say that blood needs to be tested for it.”

Research done by center faculty also may prove useful for another new unit that has been established at UGA—the Center for Drug Discovery, part of the College of Pharmacy. That effort is being spearheaded by another GRA eminent scholar, Vasu Nair, who was recruited to UGA in 2002 from an endowed chair at the University of Iowa.

“Vasu Nair has been in touch with me, and I’ve told him to add me to his list of collaborators,” says Docampo. “It’s very good to have that group to ­develop new drug therapies.”

Just as important as these collaborations is the training of the next generation of scientists, says Colley. “A recent article in Science pointed out that we are losing people in parasitology and not replacing them,” he notes. “That’s why it’s so important that our center has received several training grants.”

These include an NIH Institutional Training Grant for pre- and post-doctoral training and an Ellison Medical Foundation grant that allows undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to participate in international exchanges.

“International experience early in one’s career sets the hook and students often then stay involved, or at least interested, in international research and events,” says Colley.

Case in point: Josh Woodruff, a UGA Honors student who did research in Rick Tarleton’s lab and made two trips to Tanzania as an undergraduate. He was subsequently selected as a Marshall Scholar and went on to pursue a master of science in the field of infectious ­diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Following in his footsteps—quite literally—is Matthew Crim, who also did research as an undergrad in ­Tarleton’s lab. Crim heads this fall to the London school with his own Marshall Scholarship just as Woodruff returns to the U.S. to start an M.D./Ph.D. at the Emory School of Medicine, where he’s been accepted into the Medical Scientist Training Program.

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photos by Dot Paul (M ’97)

Click on image to enlarge

Docampo’s wife, Silvia Moreno—who doubles as his lab and research team partner—is an internationally ­recognized scientist who studies the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis.

“A recent article in Science pointed out that we are losing people in parasitology and not replacing them," says Dan Colley, director of UGA's Center for Tropical and Emrging Global Diseases. "That’s why it’s so important that our center has received several training grants.”