URI, Pakistan researchers collaborate on tick research and vaccine development

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 3, 2007 – Researchers from the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease are teaming with colleagues from Pakistan to help the south Asian nation address its growing tick problem.

“Unlike in Rhode Island where abundant deer tick populations cause alarming numbers of Lyme disease cases in humans, one of the major tick-related problems in Pakistan is the impact of tick-transmitted diseases on livestock,” said URI Entomology Professor Thomas Mather, director of the Center. “In Pakistan, ticks also transmit a virus to humans known as CCHF, sometimes called the Asian Ebola virus because of its contagious and deadly similarity to African Ebola.”

The project is part of the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded $6.9 million U.S.-Pakistan Science and Technology Cooperative Program, which provided a $290,000 grant to the URI researchers. The Higher Education Commission in Pakistan provided matching funds. The grants will help establish a molecular entomology laboratory in Pakistan, and a research and training program focused on anti-tick vaccine development similar to one at URI.

“Pakistan is an agricultural country in which livestock play an important part, so if we have even a modest tick infestation, it can result in a significant loss of meat and milk production and a negative impact on the economy,” explained Abdullah Arijo, associate professor of parasitology at Sindh Agricultural University in southern Pakistan and the lead Pakistani researcher on the project. “Veterinary pathogens transmitted by ticks especially threaten the livelihood of rural Pakistanis.”

Arijo said that 75 percent of the residents of his province are farmers that rely on one or two buffaloes and a small flock of goats to feed their family. Farmers currently apply insecticides to their animals and release poultry into their fields to feed on the ticks, but tick numbers remain high. So the Pakistani researcher spent a month this fall at URI to learn how Mather and his team are addressing the tick problem in Rhode Island while also gaining hands-on experience with the high-tech equipment and methods Mather and URI Assistant Professor Shahid Karim are using to discover an anti-tick vaccine.

“It has been a very beneficial experience for me here, to see the infrastructure in the lab and learn the protocols used for developing a vaccine,” said Arijo, whose research also includes creation of detection kits for tick pathogens.

When Arijo returned to Pakistan in late November, he planned to purchase the equipment used in the URI labs and begin training his staff and other researchers in its use.

“Dr. Arijo will then be able to use the same techniques and methodology in his research that we use here, making it easier for us to work together,” Karim explained. “And we will be able to continue helping him with any technical issues that may arise in his work.”

“URI has long been recognized as a national leader for its research on tick-transmitted diseases, and I am pleased the university is sharing its expertise with other nations who need assistance,” said U.S. Senator Jack Reed, who helped secure federal funding for the University’s tick-borne disease prevention program. “I commend URI for its anti-tick diplomacy. This international partnership will help Pakistan reduce tick-borne disease, protect their livestock, and bolster their economy. Programs like this go a long way toward enhancing America’s image abroad.”

In March, Mather and Karim hope to lead a team of URI and National Institutes of Health scientists to Pakistan to offer a series of workshops designed to teach Pakistani researchers about tick identification, surveillance techniques, risk assessment, pathogen detection, and molecular biology methodology.

“These workshops are a first step toward increasing the manpower available in Pakistan to address the growing tick problem there,” said Mather.

Support for this project is part of the $1.5 billion in aid that the U.S. government is providing to Pakistan over five years to improve economic growth, education, health and governance and to assist with earthquake reconstruction.