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University of Iowa News Release

Aug. 28, 2003

(Photo: Michael Apicella, M.D., UI professor and head of microbiology)

UI Awarded $22.2 Million NIH Contract To Study Respiratory Bacteria

The University of Iowa is the lead institution for a seven-year, $22.2 million contract awarded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The contract is for a Bacterial Respiratory Pathogens Research Unit (BRPRU) that includes basic research programs and a clinical trials component to study bacteria that cause respiratory illness in humans.

The ultimate goal of the unit is to develop and test state-of-the-art vaccines and treatments for the diagnosis, prevention and management of bacterial respiratory infections in humans.

Michael Apicella, M.D., UI professor and head of microbiology, is the principal investigator of the contract and will direct the BRPRU. In addition to Apicella, UI researchers from the departments of microbiology, internal medicine, pediatrics, pathology, physiology and biophysics, radiation oncology and the College of Public Health will conduct both basic and clinical studies on various bacterial respiratory pathogens.

Researchers at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee in Memphis also are part of the BRPRU. Research projects at the UI will be supported with approximately two thirds of the funding. The remaining funds will support the projects conducted at the collaborating institutions and also cover some administrative costs.

Apicella attributes the UI's successful bid for the BRPRU contract to several factors.

"We have a lot of strength in bacterial pathogenesis research, and our clinical trials unit, both in-patient and out-patient, is outstanding," Apicella said.

He added that the strength of the clinical trials unit was clearly demonstrated by the success of a smallpox vaccine trial conducted at the UI last summer. That trial was particularly successful in enrolling and, importantly, retaining study participants.

In response to events since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has increased the funding available to support bio-defense research. The government wants researchers to develop strategies to enhance the immune response and evaluate candidate vaccines and drugs against emerging and reemerging pathogens and biological threat agents. The BRPRU together with units focusing on viral respiratory pathogens will form a coordinated, interactive, multi-disciplinary research network, which will provide the necessary groundwork to support the production of vaccines and drugs against important human respiratory pathogens.

"We plan to study several respiratory bacteria including Haemophilus influenzae, Pneumococcus and Group A Streptococcus," Apicella said. "We also have strong research expertise with Pseudomonas aeruginosa and our collaborators at the University of Tennessee in Memphis have expertise in Chlamydia pneumonia."

One area of research that will be important in the BRPRU is discovering more about bacterial carriage. This is the process by which bacteria such as Haemophilus influenzae and Pneumococcus can thrive in the throat of a normal person without causing the person to get sick.

"This has become a hot area in bacteriology," Apicella said. "Bacterial carriage is a very complex interaction of the environment, the host and probably the pathogen. We would like to know what factors dictate asymptomatic carriage versus disease."

Carriage studies will involve putting specifically mutated bacteria into the throats or nasal passages of healthy human volunteers and examining how those mutations affect the ability of the organism to reside in the host human.

"These studies start in the lab where we make and define the mutants and then go into the human studies," Apicella explained.

Other studies that will be conducted as part of the BRPRU contract include research using gene-chip array technology to investigate how bacterial gene regulation changes in different models of human infection and how airway cells respond to infection with the bacteria.

UI researchers and their colleagues also will conduct studies aimed at developing a vaccine against Pseudomonas aeruginosa and investigating the proteins produced by Chlamydia pneumonia bacteria during infection of human airway cells.

Human studies within the BRPRU will include vaccine studies and studies of various immune stimulants.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide. Visit UI Health Care online at

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Health Science Relations, 5141 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1178

CONTACT: Jennifer Brown, (319) 335-9917

PHOTOS/GRAPHICS: For a photo of Dr. Apicella, contact Jennifer Brown 319-335-9917,