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University of Iowa News Release

Oct. 7, 2003

Researchers Receive Grant To Study Alcohol Abuse, Immunodeficiency

Researchers at the University of Iowa and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) have jointly received a five-year, $6.3 million grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), one of the National Institutes of Health, to study immune system abnormalities caused by chronic alcohol abuse.

Robert Cook, M.D., Ph.D., UI professor of pathology and director of clinical laboratories at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Iowa City, is the coordinator of this interactive research projects grant. Cook and his colleagues will study the effects of chronic alcohol abuse on various components of the immune system and also will investigate the effects of alcohol on the immune system responses to infectious diseases.

"People who chronically abuse alcohol develop immunodeficiency, which leaves them more prone to infectious diseases such as pneumonia," Cook explained. "Not only does this cause health problems for those individuals, but it also increases the societal cost from health care expenses and lost productivity. Our studies will provide the first comprehensive description of what the immune system abnormalities are in chronic alcohol abuse so that we can begin to tailor individual therapies."

Although increased rates of infection in people who abuse alcohol are an indication of immune systems problems, it has not been possible in the past to obtain a clear understanding of the cellular mechanisms that underlie the immunodeficiency.

Cook explained that a new animal model has been developed that will allow the research team to investigate the immune system changes caused by chronic alcohol exposure.

"Using mice with various genetic predispositions, we are able to put them on alcohol-containing diets and keep them reasonably healthy for a long period of time," Cook said. "In the past that has been difficult, but now we have an animal model of chronic alcohol exposure that produces similar immunologic changes to those observed in chronic human alcoholics."

Cook and his colleagues at the UI and at UNMC will use this animal model as well as cell culture studies to investigate the effect of chronic alcohol abuse on various cellular components of the immune system including T-cells, B-cells, dendritic cells, monocytes and natural killer cells. Each of these cell types play different roles in fighting infectious diseases.

In addition to Cook, Thomas Waldschmidt, Ph.D., UI professor of pathology, Annette Schlueter, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology, and Thomas Jerrells, Ph.D., UNMC professor of pathology and microbiology, will lead specific projects under the grant. Other collaborating principal investigators include Zuhair Ballas, M.D., UI professor of internal medicine and staff physician at the Iowa City VAMC, and Nancy Ray, Ph.D., UI assistant research scientist in pathology.

The UI researchers will receive $4.85 million and the UNMC researcher will receive nearly $1.5 million to conduct their studies.

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, 5135 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1178

MEDIA CONTACT: Jennifer Brown, 319-335-9917,

PHOTOS/GRAPHICS: A photo of Dr. Cook is available at