Utpal Pal - Lyme disease research with deer ticks at Vet Med

UMD-Led Team Receives $7.7 Million NIH Grant for First-of-its-Kind Tick-Borne Disease Research

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — University of Maryland Professor Utpal Pal leads a multi-institution team of researchers that will receive up to $7.7 million over five years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for an ongoing research program to understand how the immune responses of ticks contribute to the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Pal, a professor of veterinary medicine who is a recognized leader in this field of research, will collaborate with researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Yale University and the University of Minnesota on research across different aspects of tick immunobiology.

“We are very excited and honored to have received this grant award, and on the first submission,” said Pal, who has been studying Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, for 12 years; is a member of the Vaccine and Therapeutics Subcommittee of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Tick-Borne Diseases Working Group; and a member of the scientific advisory board of the Global Lyme Alliance.

UMD Professor Utpal Pal with image of a deer tick.
Professor Pal with background image of a deer tick, or blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis. Credit UMD

“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,” Pal said. “To be the lead investigator and institution on this is a testament to our leadership in the field. ”

Directed by Pal, UMD will be handling core administrative duties for the program and helping advise and coordinate all projects. The new program has three major research components centered around different aspects of tick immune response. Pal and his UMD research team also will lead research in one of these areas, the indirect immune response that is found in ticks that carry pathogens that cause Lyme disease and other illnesses.  Pal is the discoverer of this phenomena, which is pivotal to role of ticks as carriers of these pathogens.

When one of these  ticks feeds on a host animal, most commonly a mouse or deer, the tick’s immune system recognizes if a pathogen is present in the host’s blood as that blood is ingested. This triggers a non-specific, or indirect, line of immune system defense by the tick that is only partly successful in killing the pathogen.

Pal explains: “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 [the tick] 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.”

The two other major research components supported by the program are centered around tick direct immune response, and on how gut bacteria in ticks interacts with the their immune response to pathogens.

Joao Pedra, M.D., principal investigator from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, will be examining direct immune response mechanisms of the tick. These include how the tick identifies a specific pathogen and what pathogen-specific tactics it employs to try and kill each different pathogen that it ingests.

Erol Fikrig, M.D., the research program’s principal investigator from Yale University, will be examining how microbiota (gut bacteria) in a tick interact with the different immune responses the tick uses to try and kill pathogens living in the blood that it ingests.

Professor 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.

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 program supported by this multi-project grant has a goal of training future leaders in the field. 

“With this funding, UMD will be at the center of this work and [also] 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 already is widely considered a leader in tick-borne illness research. Given the growing public health importance of tick-borne diseases, the 21st Century Cures Act, enacted by Congress in December 2016, mandated the formation of a Tick-Borne Diseases Working Group comprising federal and public members from diverse backgrounds. Pal 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 grants from the NIH for his work. With this new multi-project grant, he will be doing so on an even larger scale.

Read here about recent research by Professor Pal that uncovered a Lyme disease protein used to outsmart the human immune system.

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