Public Release: 

Purdue biologists receive nearly $18 million to study infectious diseases

Purdue University

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - As part of a major U.S. presidential initiative to combat bioterrorism, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a pair of grants to Purdue University researchers to help the group study viruses thought to have potential as biological weapons.

While the two grants are to support research projects that are independent of one another, together they will allow Purdue biologists to pursue both basic research on viruses and also speed the development of antiviral agents that could stem from this basic research. Richard J. Kuhn, primary investigator for both projects that have seven additional Purdue faculty co-investigators, said the larger of the two grants could have special significance for the future of the university and his field.

"This grant is a significant achievement for both structural biology and Purdue as a whole," said Kuhn, who is professor of biology in Purdue's School of Science. "These funds will permit us to analyze the protein building blocks of viruses far more efficiently than we are now able to. These funds could enable us to make large strides in viral research in a fraction of the time we now consider necessary."

The larger award, a $14.7 million NIH Program Project Grant spread over four and a half years, is aimed to support basic research on the fundamental biology of viruses. At the heart of such research is the study of the myriad proteins that form various parts of viruses; such proteins allow viral particles to infect and replicate within their cellular hosts. Such research generally requires the use of advanced microscopes, synchrotron radiation and computer technology to reveal the protein molecules' internal structures.

"Up to this point, we have only been able to focus on one protein at a time," said Kuhn, who has dedicated much of his career to exploring the structure of such viruses as dengue and sindbis. "These NIH funds mean we will now be able to establish a new type of laboratory and employ robotic analysis equipment that can produce about 100 proteins simultaneously. The grant is a significant investment in structural virology at Purdue."

The second grant, $3.2 million also spread over four and a half years, could complement the first grant in the long run, as it is designed to support the development of antiviral compounds that might be made possible by the researchers' work. The project is part of a larger $350 million NIH initiative that will establish eight Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research (RCE). According to Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the RCEs are a key element in the department's strategic plan for biodefense research.

"We have moved with unprecedented speed and determination to prepare for a bioterror attack or any other public health crisis since the terrorist attacks of 2001," Thompson said. "These new grants add to this effort and will not only better prepare us for a bioterrorism attack, but will also enhance our ability to deal with any public health crisis, such as SARS and West Nile virus."

The antivirals project will constitute Purdue's contribution to the recently established Midwestern RCE, located at the University of Chicago.

While the funds will benefit the national defense effort, they also could help the university give additional support to the structural biology group, of which Kuhn is a part. The field has long been considered a significant part of 21st century science, and the funds could facilitate the creation of a new facility on campus for its development.

"These grants reaffirm the world-class significance of this signature area of Purdue research and the university's effort to raise funds to build a new $30 million dollar facility for it in our Discovery Park," said Purdue Provost Sally Frost Mason. "We expect that a portion of the new funding also can be applied toward the new building, a priority in the $1.3 billion Campaign for Purdue."

For the moment, Kuhn said he was pleased with the award and excited about the possibilities it will provide.

"Structural biology offers the potential to unlock the secrets of viral attack, before which humanity continues to stand nearly helpless," he said. "Most of us in the structural group would like to be a part of discoveries that will change all that, and these grants could make that possible."

The teams are composed of faculty from Purdue's Department of Biological Sciences and Department of Medicinal Chemistry. While Kuhn is principal investigator, others on the teams for both grants include Purdue professors Michael Rossmann and Janet Smith. Other Purdue faculty associated with at least one of the grants include professors Timothy Baker, Mark Cushman and Carol Post; and associate professors David Sanders and Jue Chen. Professor James Strauss from the California Institute of Technology also is a member of the team involved with the larger grant.

Kuhn and most of the other grant awardees at Purdue are associated with the university's Markey Center for Structural Biology. The Markey Center consists of laboratories that use a combination of cryoelectron microscopy, crystallography and molecular biology to elucidate the processes of viral entry, replication and pathogenesis.

###

Writer: Chad Boutin, (765) 494-2081, cboutin@purdue.edu
Source: Richard J. Kuhn, (765) 494-1164, kuhnr@purdue.edu

Related stories:
First-ever images of developing dengue virus obtained at Purdue: http://news.uns.purdue.edu/UNS/html4ever/030618.Rossmann.immature.htm
Scientists solve structure of dengue virus: http://news.uns.purdue.edu/UNS/html4ever/020307.Kuhn.dengue.html
Virus studies reunite two families of major insect-borne viruses: http://news.uns.purdue.edu/UNS/html4ever/010406.Kuhn.alphavirus.html
NIH release on Regional Centers of Excellence: http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/sep2003/niaid-04.htm

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.