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JMU Senior Researches Deadly Disease With Leading Research Firm SRI

Alex Sharp ('11), JMU Public Affairs

JMU, SRI Formalize Partnership

A partnership that began more than four years ago when James Madison University helped woo SRI International to the Shenandoah Valley will continue to benefit both institutions for years to come.

The university and SRI recently signed a memorandum of agreement that, among other things, will provide JMU faculty and students research opportunities at SRI while affording SRI employees access to university labs and other resources.

"This agreement solidifies and allows for an expansion of the outstanding partnership we have with SRI," said John Noftsinger, vice provost of research and public service at JMU. "It delineates areas on which we can focus for short to midterm success and lays the groundwork for future more extensive collaboration."

The agreement states that the pact will provide for the mutual exchange of services and expertise allowing both organizations to advance their missions. It also states that the partnership will develop a skilled workforce for SRI and the Shenandoah Valley.

Specifics of the agreement include:

  • SRI will offer internships to undergraduate or graduate students, some for pay and some for credit, at SRI facilities.
  • JMU will grant affiliate status to designated SRI personnel, who will teach designated classes and participate in guest lectures.
  • JMU affiliates will have access to jmu facilities, equipment.
  • SRI will provide JMU faculty and students access to SRI facilities and research projects for joint development.
  • Affiliates will provide consultation within their areas of expertise to JMU with respect to JMU efforts to improve its educational and research facilities.

 

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Senior biology major Tina Safavie has been fascinated by viruses since her sophomore year of high school, when she saw a presentation on the topic. And this summer, the JMU student got some hands-on experience working with a little-known tropical virus at one of the premier biotech companies in the world: SRI International.

Safavie's experience included adding dengue virus to "secret" compounds synthesized by SRI, and then adding that mixture to African green monkey kidney cells to check for inhibition of the infection. An effective compound exhibits little to no growth of infection.

The World Health Organization states that about 2.5 billion people are at risk of contracting mosquito-borne dengue fever, and that about 500,000 are hospitalized every year for the more dangerous dengue hemmorhagic fever. And that is a big problem since there is no effective treatment for the illness.

"There are no anti-virals and there are no vaccines," said Safavie, who worked with a research team seeking an antidote for dengue fever at SRI's Center for Advanced Drug Research (CADRE) just north of Harrisonburg. Safavie worked closely with SRI virologists to screen various compounds for their anti-viral effects on the sometimes-fatal virus.

Symptoms of an initial infection are similar to influenza and include high fever, headaches, joint pain and rash. People who are infected a second time can contract dengue haemorrhagic fever, a potentially fatal complication that involves a high fever that lasts from two to seven days and may be followed by circulatory failure, which causes the body temperature to drop dramatically and the patient to suffer shock syndrome.

Most cases of dengue fever and DHF occur in under-developed tropical nations, said Dr. Krishna Kodukula, director of CADRE and leader of the dengue project. The disease is rare in the United States, but as global temperatures increase and the mosquito breeding range broadens, he thinks there will be more infections and a larger risk area.

"We feel that more outbreaks will occur in the US," Kodukula said, noting that this summer about 1,000 people in Key West, Fla. were diagnosed with dengue fever.

And just days after Kodukula's prediction, three-time world champion surfer Andy Irons, an American, died of complications from dengue fever.

Safavie first learned of dengue—and the internship offered by SRI—in a global infectious diseases class taught by assistant professors Chris Lantz and Amanda Biesecker. Lantz has worked directly with SRI since the 2007 opening of CADRE.

"Students who take this course would be very good candidates then to move into internships at SRI," Lantz said of the three-credit biology class that explored six global diseases—malaria, AIDs, tuberulosis, cholera and little-known tropical diseases leishmania and dengue fever.

Tina Safavie working in a JMU biology lab

Tina Safavie has been interested in biology since high school. With biology, "you can explain life and sometimes you can also save lives," she said.

Two other students from that class also worked on the dengue project as interns. Lantz considers their exposure to the research practices at SRI extremely beneficial.

"Academic research is different in a lot of ways from what happens at a biotech company, and obviously they're going to be exposed to some of those things there," Lantz said, adding that academic research is usually conducted for the sake of acquiring knowledge, while the goal at a biotech company is typically to come up with some sort of therapeutic intervention in some major disease.

DHF, which is now endemic in more than 100 countries, qualifies as a major disease. The WHO reports that "not only is the number of cases increasing as the disease is spreading to new areas, but explosive outbreaks are occurring." An outbreak in Venezuela in 2007 involved more than 80,000 cases of dengue fever, 6,000 of which were DHF, the agency reported.

Which gives some urgency to the project at SRI. The goal is to create an effective anti-virus, and ideally, a vaccine that prevents the transmission of dengue.

"We are still in the early stages," Kodukula said. "Typically this kind of biomedical research takes years and years of work before an effective product comes onto the market."

Kodukula got to know Safavie during her internship at SRI and describes her as a "very bright student and good team member" that was very active in the research program, a model for future JMU students seeking professional lab experience.

"I kind of always knew that I was into biology, because with biology, you can explain life," Safavie said, "and, sometimes, you can also save lives."

 

Published: Dec. 14, 2010