A&M Awarded $12.25 Million Defense Department Contract to Combat Agents of Biological Terror

By: TAMU Press Release
By: TAMU Press Release

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Medicine (TIGM), a leading global source for genetic discoveries, has been selected by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to identify and develop new drug targets for certain toxins, viruses and bacterial pathogens. By discovering and ultimately developing strategies to eliminate the ways in which toxins and microbes hijack cells, this research has the potential to discover new vaccines and therapies to counteract the most dangerous bio-threats faced by both military personnel and civilians.

The DTRA award will be used to develop first-in-class high-throughput screening procedures for mouse stem cells involving state-of-the-art robotic equipment and pioneering screening procedures. TIGM investigators will screen more than 3,500 different genes to identify those that enable toxins and microbes to injure cells and tissues. Once candidate genes are identified, TIGM researchers will develop therapies to be tested both in tissues and pre-clinical models.

Dr. James Sacchettini, principal investigator for the project and an internationally-recognized infectious disease researcher, said, “This approach is completely novel and has the potential to exponentially advance the state of human resistance to infectious threats, and the method will be amenable to a broad range of applications.”

Dr. Deeann Wallis, molecular geneticist and project manager for Dr. Sacchettini’s team, said that the DTRA research will utilize many different ES cell clones, each with a single gene defect that will enable unprecedented prediction of gene function in complex multi-tissue systems. The project will establish a standing high-throughput capability that could be employed in the case of a strategic national emergency.
“It is a genuinely unique way to utilize our genetic library; no one else in the world can do this,” said Wallis.

Sacchettini, a Texas A&M biochemistry and biophysics professor, also leads the university’s Center for Structural Biology in the Agrilife Program. The center is a cornerstone of Texas A&M’s new world-class Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building, which was inspired by former Texas A&M President Robert Gates’ vision of increased discovery through interdisciplinary collaboration. The $100 million ILSB—one of the largest single construction projects in the history of Texas A&M University—accommodates some of the university’s most visionary and talented scientific investigators from a host of different, yet complementary disciplines.

For the DTRA grant, Dr. Sacchettini’s team will incorporate high throughput techniques to screen the response of stem cells representing various cell types in the body to the biological agents. The cells demonstrating enhanced survival and health will then be developed into living mice that would also be resistant to disease. Once proven in these animals, new drugs can be designed for human use that would block the infection or toxin’s access to those human genes.

Researchers believe these findings will strengthen our national defense by expanding our ability to quickly and effectively protect citizens against both known and unknown biological threats, including biological warfare agents or unforeseen emerging infectious diseases.

“TIGM is an incredible State of Texas resource that has impacted science on a global scale,” said Dr. Brett Giroir, vice chancellor for research for the Texas A&M System and executive director of the Institute for Innovative Therapeutics (IIT), the newly established institute representing the partnership between the system’s multiple state-of-the-art research facilities. “Consider the reach: TIGM resources have been accessed by nearly 4,500 individual researchers from more than 600 institutions representing 35 countries worldwide. Its mouse stem cell library represents approximately 90 percent of the entire world’s resources. This award represents what is possible when a world class researcher like Dr. Sacchettini has the TIGM resource at his disposal as part of an academic core within the A&M System. ”

An integral part of the developing biomedical corridor in Texas’ Research Valley, TIGM scientists responded to more than 1,500 queries last year, and recent Texas Workforce Commission data determined that TIGM has met and exceeded its job creation goals since its 2006 establishment. Today’s DTRA award announcement outlines a 53-month project engagement.

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