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Assistant Professor in Biological Sciences Awarded Commonwealth Health Grant to Study Tick-Borne Diseases

Written By: Tiffany Whitfield

Old Dominion University Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Lisa Shollenberger was recently awarded a competitive Virginia Commonwealth Health Research Board (CHRB) grant. This highly competitive research grant will help her vaccinology research expand into tick-borne diseases (TBD). Shollenberger is only the third ODU recipient of this award since 1999 when the CHRB funding was established. The CHRB grant will provide Shollenberger's research program with $266,000 over two years.

"This grant will allow me to establish myself in the tick-borne pathogen (TBP) vaccine field by developing the immunological tools necessary to conduct larger, in-depth studies of immunogenicity and efficacy. Advancing novel TBP vaccine candidates is critical to preventing TBD, which are not uniformly distributed across time or space, making avoidance difficult. We're excited to begin this timely project to help tackle the growing problem of TBD in our state and beyond."

TBD are a worldwide threat to human and animal health. In the USA, Lyme disease is the most common, not the only, bacterial TBD. Other tick-borne pathogens include species of Rickettsia, Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, and Francisella; also, Babesia species, and viruses. Virginia had 8,895 reportable TBD cases from 2015-2019, one of the highest statewide incidences in the country, and that doesn't include tick-borne viral infections, which are not reportable. ODU Biology has a strong team of tick researchers, including their expert on tick-borne disease pathogens, Dr. Wayne Hynes, who is a collaborator on this grant.

"This grant will allow an expansion of the One Health approach being taken by the ODU tick team to study bacterial TBD; from surveillance to potential disease prevention," said Wayne Hynes, associate dean and professor in biological sciences. "If successful, this research could lead to development of vaccines for other vector-borne diseases."

Shollenberger's research addresses the development of effective vaccines for TBP as crucial since there are currently no licensed human vaccines. Since most TBP are intracellular pathogens, cell-mediated immunity (CMI) is likely more appropriate than humoral (antibody-based) responses. They hypothesize intracellular proteins, which may be conserved between multiple organisms, are appropriate candidate vaccine antigens for intracellular pathogens. Using rickettsial antigens as proof-of-concept, they will test this hypothesis through development of the necessary immunological tools and evaluation of immunogenicity.

"Dr. Shollenberger's cutting edge research in vaccine development is a new direction for our department and we are delighted to see the support she's gained from CHRB," said Christopher Osgood, associate professor and chair. "Her collaboration with the TBP investigators will benefit many in our department and will provide outstanding training for our students."

The Shollenberger laboratory is dedicated to training the next generation of biomedical researchers. As such, the CHRB award will allow her to hire a dedicated postdoctoral researcher and an undergraduate student researcher. Under the guidance and direction of the PI, the postdoctoral trainee will be responsible for the day-to-day activities in the laboratory, including mentoring the undergraduate student, who will be helping to conduct the project.

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