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Wednesday, August 19, 1998, 12:00 p.m. EDT
$6.3 Million Federal Grant Funds Pfiesteria Research
University of Maryland School of Medicine Heads Neurocognitive, Neurotoxicologic Studies
As conditions ripen for a fresh outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida in Maryland, scientists in Baltimore are gearing up for one of the most extensive research projects ever undertaken on the toxic, whip-tailed micro-organisms. The National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has awarded a five-year, $6.3 million Pfiesteria research grant to the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology (COMB) and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The grant will fund four interconnected research projects and two supporting core facilities. Researchers will conduct neurocognitive and neurotoxologic studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the base for the administrative core. Another core facility will be established at COMB to culture the Pfiesteria species implicated in fish kills and human symptoms in Maryland. Researchers there will study the mechanisms underlying Pfiesteria toxicity and toxin production. They also will work to develop DNA "fingerprinting" tools to monitor, identify and classify Pfiesteria species.
J.Glenn Morris Jr., M.D., professor of medicine, epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland, Yonathan Zohar, Ph.D., professor and director of COMB, and Patricia Charache, M.D., professor of pathology, medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins, will oversee administration of the research.
"Pfiesteria, with its propensity for killing fish and its human health effects, has generated great public concern and had a profound economic impact on affected areas," says Morris, who heads a medical team appointed by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to evaluate people reporting symptoms of Pfiesteria exposure. "Data from these studies are essential if we are to understand the real risks associated with this micro-organism and to develop rational interventions to protect public health." Lynn Grattan, Ph.D., associate professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, will be principal investigator on research into the attention and memory disturbances documented in people exposed last summer to Maryland waterways containing Pfiesteria toxins. Grattan and Christopher Bever, M.D., professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, will use the results of clinical neurologic exams and technologies, including electroencephalograph (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), to learn more about the parts of the brain affected by exposure, as well as the severity and patterns of neuropsychological deficits.
Ellen Silbergeld, Ph.D., Amira Eldefrawi, Ph.D., and Edson Albuquerque, M.D., Ph.D., will work to identify the neurotoxic agent or agents produced by Pfiesteria and to understand the mechanisms underlying the neuropsychological deficits that exposure can cause. A professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland, Silbergeld is principal investigator on the neurotoxicity study. Eldefrawi is a professor of pharmacology, and Albuquerque is professor and chairman of pharmacology at the University of Maryland.
Another University of Maryland researcher, Andrew Kane, Ph.D., will be co-principal investigator in the core facility for the culture of toxic dinoflagellates, at COMB. Kane is an assistant professor of pathology in the aquatic pathobiology laboratory. Principal investigators at the COMB core lab are Zohar and Gerardo R. Vasta, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and immunology at UMBI.
"The mechanisms by which the toxins act at the level of the brain cannot be understood until enough toxins are produced in the lab," says Zohar. "This is exactly what we will do at COMB."
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