MSU researchers engage in CDC center of excellence aimed at addressing vector-borne diseases

Michigan State University researchers will be supported by $1.3M in grant funding, part of larger $10M project.

Jean Tsao
Jean Tsao

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State University researchers are the recipients of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant focusing on the prevention and control of tick- and mosquito-borne diseases in the Great Lakes region. 

MSU will receive $1.3 million over the next five years to further investigate the rise of vector-borne diseases – human illnesses caused by parasites, bacteria and viruses. It is part of a broader $10 million award that extends funding started in 2017 of the Midwest Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases (MCE-VBD), a multi-state network of researchers, universities, and public health agencies in the Great Lakes region. University of Wisconsin is the lead institution, along with other collaborators from the University of Illinois, University of Notre Dame, and Purdue University. The new MSU award represents the culmination of a highly competitive renewal process, selected from 22 applications reviewed by the CDC, to maintain four such centers nationwide. 

Jean Tsao, who holds appointments in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife within the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) and the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences within the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), leads the Michigan State University effort. She is joined in collaboration by Henry (Rique) Campa III, also from the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and a Senior Associate Dean in the Graduate School, and Ned Walker, with the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics within the MSU College of Natural Science and the Department of Entomology within CANR. Each of the three team members are also supported by MSU AgBioResearch.

The MSU team aims to develop and evaluate targeted and biologically rational approaches to control tick populations by administering anti-parasitic drugs to white-tailed deer populations. This approach is modeled after an ongoing project being conducted by Campa and USDA researchers from the National Wildlife Research Center investigating a bovine tuberculosis vaccine delivery system being funded by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources-Wildlife Division. 

Ned Walker
Ned Walker

The primary tick species of interest is the blacklegged or “deer” tick, responsible for transmission of pathogens and for ultimately causing Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Powassan viral encephalitis in humans. Tsao said this tick species and its associated pathogens have been rapidly expanding within Michigan, increasing the risk of tick-borne infections not only to people, but companion animals as well. 

If successful, a similar system could be adapted for control of populations of the invasive lone star tick, recently discovered in Michigan, and the Asian long-horned tick, which has reached neighboring states, said Tsao.  The establishment of these tick species can have negative consequences for wildlife, livestock, companion animals and people. 

Additionally, the team is evaluating targeted methods for control of black-tailed mosquito populations, responsible for transmission of eastern equine encephalitis virus in the state. The researchers say the severe encephalitis illness caused by the virus infection has been increasing in frequency and expanding its geographic distribution, affecting people, horses, zoo animals, and wildlife such as deer and eagles. 

The team is developing a prevention method involving selective treatment of insect resting stations placed at the perimeters of environmentally sensitive sphagnum bog and hardwood swamp habitats of the black-tailed mosquito. 

Henry Campa
Henry (Rique) Campa III

The MSU research program overall will include outreach to stakeholder and community interest groups in the state and region, and will engage undergraduate and graduate students, students of veterinary medicine within CVM, and a postdoctoral scientist. 

Additionally, MSU researchers will continue to work with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, publicly funded mosquito control programs, and local health departments to: 

  • improve public health capacity to detect invasive vectors
  • refine current vector control practices
  • evaluate and improve messaging to promote adoption of personal protective measures to prevent exposure to vector-borne pathogens. 

According to the World Health Organization, vector-borne diseases account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases and are responsible for more than 700,000 deaths annually.

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