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Tick-Borne Disease Research Aims to Develop New Vaccines

A Kansas State University professor is researching ways to keep animals and humans safe from tick-borne diseases.

by Kansas State University
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Roman Ganta, professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, has received a four-year $1.8 million National Institutes of Health grant to continue studying the tick-borne bacterium Ehrlichia chaffeensis.Kansas State UniversityRoman Ganta, professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, has received a four-year $1.8 million National Institutes of Health grant to continue studying the tick-borne bacterium Ehrlichia chaffeensis. With the latest grant, Ganta now has 16 years of continuous NIH funding for his research related to tick-borne pathogens.

By studying the genetic makeup of E. chaffeensis, Ganta and his research team plan to develop vaccines to protect against infections from E. chaffeensis and other similar tick-borne pathogens.

"Our research is directed at more than just one pathogen and one disease from one tick," Ganta said. "There are several different tick species that transmit pathogens that cause diseases in humans, dogs, cattle, sheep and other vertebrate animals. Our research also applies to other pathogens transmitted from different tick species."

E. chaffeensis is a zoonotic pathogen that is transmitted to humans and animals by the lone star tick. E. chaffeensis causes a human disease called human monocytic ehrlichiosis. The lone star tick is prevalent in eastern Kansas and throughout the southeastern and south central regions of the U.S., where cases of human monocytic ehrlichiosis are documented frequently.

Infection with E. chaffeensis can cause persistent fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches, which often appear one to two weeks following a tick bite. The severity of the disease varies from person to person, although it can be fatal in immunocompromised people, Ganta said.

The major goal of Ganta's research is to understand what proteins are important for E. chaffeensis to grow in vertebrate hosts and in ticks. Ganta and his research team are working at the genome level to understand how the pathogen grows in humans, animals and ticks, and how it is uniquely able to adapt to vertebrate hosts and ticks.

"We want to identify which genes are essential for the pathogen and use them to develop a vaccine," Ganta said. "We want to understand the molecular basis for the pathogenesis by carrying out basic research that has important implications for applied science."

Ganta also has received $90,000 from the College of Veterinary Medicine and the department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology to develop a tick-rearing laboratory. The facility will be used for his research and other projects in the college and the university. The facility also may aid in establishing research collaborations with other universities and industry members, Ganta said.

"We are thrilled with the recognition from the college and from the National Institutes of Health," Ganta said. "It is very encouraging. Our research would not be possible without the support."

Ganta's research team from the diagnostic medicine and pathobiology department includes Deborah Jaworski, research assistant professor; Chuanmin Cheng, microbiologist; Arathy D.S. Nair, postdoctoral associate; Huitao Liu, postdoctoral associate; Laxmi U.M.R. Jakkula, postdoctoral associate; and Vijay K. Eedunuri, postdoctoral associate. Tanner Slead, veterinary medicine student in the College of Veterinary Medicine, Overland Park, also is involved.