Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg
UMD Professor Utpal Pal leads a team of investigators across multiple institutions that will receive up to $7.7 million over 5 years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for an ongoing tick research program to understand the immune responses of ticks that contribute to the spread of major diseases like Lyme disease. Pal is the project lead, with 3 other research institutions collaborating across different aspects of tick immunobiology, including Yale University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Medicine. This prestigious grant is the first-of-its-kind in the field of tick research, and it presents Pal as the predominant scientist in this field, positioning the University System of Maryland as the leading institutional resource for tick-borne disease research.
“We are very excited and honored to have received this grant award, and on the first submission,” says Pal. “The multi-project grant program is designed to give program support and a strong base of funding to accelerate research in an important area, bringing together a group of investigators across institutions to do more together and speed up scientific advancement. To be the lead investigator and institution on this is a testament to our leadership in the field.”
The new tick program has three major research components centered around tick immune response, each with a different institution at the helm. Directed by Pal, UMD will be handling core administrative duties for the program and helping advise and coordinate all projects. Dr. Erol Fikrig as principal investigator from Yale University will be examining how microbiota or gut bacteria in the tick interacts with immune responses the tick uses to try and kill pathogens in the blood it ingests. Dr. Joao Pedra as principal investigator from the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Medicine will be examining direct immune response mechanisms of the tick, which include how the tick identifies a specific pathogen and what tactics it employs to try and kill that pathogen. Dr. Ulrike Munderloh from University of Minnesota will serve as Technical Core Lead for the program, providing additional technical support including protocols and tools needed to facilitate this research. And finally, Pal and his team will be leading research in indirect immune response mechanisms in ticks that carry pathogens contributing to Lyme disease and other illnesses. Indirect immune response was a phenomena that Pal discovered originally in his lab and is a mechanism by which the tick feeding on a mammal host, most commonly mice or deer, recognizes some sort of illness in the blood as it is being ingested, triggering a non-specific line of immune defense to try to kill whatever is there.
“Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease, and Anaplasma phagocytophilum, another intracellular bacterial pathogen we are studying with this grant, are both persistent,” says Pal. “The tick tries to kill the bacteria, but it doesn’t get everything, which makes it a vector that can now pass that bacteria on to you or anyone it might bite in the future. That is why studying these immune responses in ticks is so important.”
In addition to advancing research in tick-borne illnesses and working to solve the major public health issues associated with costly and chronic diseases like Lyme disease, the multi-project grant program has a goal of training future leaders in the field. “With this funding, UMD will be at the center of this work and in charge of training the next generation of tick biologists,” says Pal.
Pal has been with the Department of Veterinary Medicine in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UMD for 12 years, and is already considered a leader in tick-borne illness research. Given the growing public health importance of tick-borne diseases, the 21st Century Cures Act mandated the formation of a Tick-Borne Diseases Working Group comprising federal and public members from diverse backgrounds. In that context, Dr. Pal has served on a subcommittee of this Tick-Borne Diseases Working Group, focusing on vaccines and treatment strategies. Pal currently holds two concurrent multi-million dollar single grants from the NIH for his work, only granted for highly important and influential research. Now with this multi-project grant, he will be doing so on an even larger scale.