Montana State University

MSU enters regional fight against bioterrorist agents

August 17, 2005 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Sheep and other barnyard animals can carry the organism that causes Q Fever. People can catch the fever in several ways, including working with infected animals and breathing in contaminated dust. (MSU photo by Erin Raley).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Montana State University has joined an army of researchers trying to defend the country against bioterrorist agents and infectious diseases.

Now part of the Rocky Mountain Regional Center of Excellence, MSU recently received $3.7 million to research the organism that causes Q Fever, develop ways to boost immunity against it and make vaccines more effective.

"It doesn't cause a lot of mortality, but it's a very, very infectious agent," said Allen Harmsen, head of Veterinary Molecular Biology at MSU. "We believe only one bacterium inhaled can cause the disease. It's very persistent in the environment, so it could be a very effective weapon for bioterrorists."

Q Fever has flu-like symptoms, but it can develop into a more serious chronic infection, Harmsen said. Cattle, sheep and goats are most likely to carry the organism Coxiella burnetii, but other kinds of animals can carry it, too. People catch Q Fever by working with infected animals and breathing in contaminated dust. They can also get it from the bite of a tick or by drinking unpasteurized milk.

The Rocky Mountain Regional Center of Excellence is devoted to diseases that can spread from animals to humans. It is one of 10 centers set up by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases across the nation to counter a wide range of bioterrorist threats. The Rocky Mountain region consists of Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Utah and Colorado.

Three projects at MSU and one at the University of Montana will be funded by MSU's grant, Harmsen said. At MSU, Mark Jutila and Mark Quinn will look for novel ways to increase the natural resistance of the lung to Coxiella burnetii. They will also look for ways to make vaccines work more effectively against Coxiella. David Pascual will develop a vaccine and delivery system. Harmsen will determine what immune mechanisms are responsible for resisting Q Fever. At the UM, Mark Minnick will identify bacterium molecules that might make good targets for vaccines.

Much of MSU's research will be conducted in a Biosafety Level 3 facility when the building is finished, Harmsen said. In the meantime, the researchers can work in existing labs with a safer version of the Coxiella burnetii. That version, called a Phase Two Coxiella, has all the characteristics of the Phase One Coxiella but doesn't cause infection.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or