Taking aim at bioterrorism: UH professor gets HHS funding to battle anthrax

October 02, 2003

HOUSTON, Oct. 2, 2003 - Selected to play a vital role in confronting the threat of bioterrorism, University of Houston professor Steven Blanke has a particular target in mind: anthrax.

Blanke, an associate professor in the biology and biochemistry department, and his UH colleagues will be working with other research groups in this region to develop countermeasures against a wide array of bacterial and viral agents. Their work is being funded by a recent $48 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services that establishes a Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research (RCE) based at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB).

The Blanke Lab, as the professor's UH facility is known, will receive approximately $1.45 million spread over five years to conduct fundamental research about anthrax and methods to neutralize its impact.

"By understanding the mechanisms of early infection, we hope to generate novel strategies for the development of therapeutics and vaccines to treat and prevent cases of inhalation anthrax," Blanke said.

The Blanke Lab will work closely with research groups from UT-Houston, the University of Oklahoma and the University of New Mexico.

"The RCE is important because it brings together leading researchers from a variety of disciplines to generate bioterrorism countermeasures in a way that couldn't be accomplished at a single university," Blanke said. "We can achieve real results at a much more rapid pace."

UH was a logical choice to become one of the principal RCE participants because of the Blanke Lab's expertise and experience in studying the molecular cross-talk that occurs during an infection between a pathogen and human cells and tissue. Professor Blanke, who joined the UH faculty in 1996, has primarily focused on examining the fundamental molecular mechanisms that bacterial toxins - such as diphtheria, cholera and anthrax - use to establish infection and disease in humans.

"We understand at a broad level how disease comes about, but at the cellular level our understanding is still pretty poor," Blanke said. Although there are literally hundreds of infectious diseases, relatively few vaccines are available. "I was shocked when I learned that. I thought there would be many more than those that exist." He has been working to change that by deciphering bacterial diseases' work at the most minute level, that is, how bacterial and human cells use molecules to conduct intimate conversations with each other. With that knowledge, he can determine the cracks in the armor of a particular agent - in this case, anthrax.

Initially, the Blanke Lab will be the only laboratory at UH directly participating in the RCE program, but the biochemist predicts that the ongoing research would expand, increasing interaction among UH faculty members and between the university and the Texas Medical Center.

"UH is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this going forward because of our existing resources in cell and molecular biology, in chemical biology, in engineering and in the material sciences," he said.
-end-
Blanke (pronounced "blank-y") received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1989 and did NIH post-doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School from 1990-95.

SOURCE: Blanke 713-743-8392; sblanke@uh.edu

Web page: http://www.bchs.uh.edu/People/Blanke/Blanke.html

To receive UH science news via e-mail, visit http://www.uh.edu/admin/media/sciencelist.html.

About the University of Houston

The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.

For more information about UH visit the university's Newsroom at http://www.uh.edu/admin/media/newsroom

University of Houston

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