Infectious Diseases

MAJOR RESEARCH TOPICS

Bacteriology
Biosecurity and Policy
Diagnostics
Disease Modeling and Informatics
Disease Surveillance
Drug Discovery, Development, and Delivery
Public Health Mitigation Strategies
Vaccine Countermeasures
Virology

Bacteriology

Our scientists are investigating critical host factors, including the body’s immune response, that are necessary for bacterial replication to inform the development of new countermeasures to highly infectious agents. This includes mechanistic studies of how extracellular vesicles regulate innate immune response to infection. They are also studying the ways to disrupt biofilm formation and combat antimicrobial resistance.

Currently studied bacterial pathogens studied include: Yersinia pestis, Franscisella tularansis, Bacillus anthracis, Burkholderia pseudomallei, and B. mallei.

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Biosecurity and Policy

Emerging technologies and the future of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons terrorism are being studied to better inform intelligence practitioners and policymakers. Strategies for infection prevention and control as a biodefense measure in the event of a biological attack are being established. This includes incentives and disincentives for hospitals to invest sufficient infection prevention and federal regulatory requirements on health-care facilities to invest in continued preparedness for biological events. Recommendations for effective health risk communication strategies for use with the public are also being developed for consideration by local, national, and international governments.

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Diagnostics

New methods are being developed and evaluated across several viral and bacterial pathogens to inform the development of disease detection systems and new diagnostic tools. Nanotechnology and proteomics technologies are used to trap whole viruses, RNA, DNA, and proteins to preserve captured chemical substances and rapidly identify biomarkers of disease. Next-generation microbiome analysis is also used to monitor the human gut ecosystem, shed light on complex metabolic and immune diseases, and to monitor tissue-specific strains. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are being used for applications such as differentiating standard bacteria strains from antibiotic-resistant strains and distinguishing engineered strains of select biothreat agents. Additionally, Mason researchers are synthesizing biomaterials for the creation of novel biosensors.

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Disease Modeling and Informatics

Predictive models, algorithms, and biomolecular simulations are being established to inform molecular interactions. Studies are applied for the elucidation of molecular pathway activities, and help inform the development of novel therapeutics and vaccines. Predictive modeling is also used to predict disease transmission.

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Disease Surveillance

The surveillance of vector-borne diseases is being conducted in Kenya, Mongolia, Equatorial Guinea, and Haiti to facilitate knowledge of emerging pathogens transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks. The emergence and transmission of zoonotic diseases such as MERS-CoV, Campylobacter, and HIV/AIDS is being studied in countries including Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Jordan. New technologies and methods are also being developed to detect soil-dwelling funguses like Coccidioides immitis and C. posadasii. Waste Water Epidemiology surveillance is also being conducted leveraging sequencing tools.

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Drug Discovery, Development, and Delivery

Structural biology and computational chemistry, in conjunction with procedures to detect enzyme activity, are used to inform strategies in medicinal chemistry for the design and synthesis of small molecule therapeutics. New technologies, such as protein painting, have been developed to inform rational drug design.

Mason scientists are also developing new therapeutics to combat bacterial and viral pathogens. For example, Mason researchers are discovering, developing, and testing novel synthetic peptides with antimicrobial, antiviral, antibiofilm, and wound healing properties. Also, using anthrax infection as a proof of concept model, they have collaborated with academic and industry partners to develop and extensively demonstrate the high efficacy of a novel immunotherapeutic platform that can be adapted for use against various bacterial or viral pathogens. They are also evaluating FDA approved drugs that could be repurposed for treatment of infectious diseases.

New platforms are being created for targeted and more effective delivery of therapeutics. Multidisciplinary teams are creating mRNA and nanoparticle based drug delivery systems, novel photoacoustic contrast agents to diagnose and administer therapy in one step, and smart patches to assess wound state and deliver therapeutics.

New therapeutics created at Mason and by external partners are tested in animal models  as well as human blood brain barrier and liver organoid models, to evaluate drug permeability and liver inflammation. Additionally, microfluidic systems to test pharmaceuticals are being developed. Mason’s regional biocontainment laboratory, equipped with an aerobiology core, is leveraged to evaluate therapeutics in BSL-2-3 and animal BSL-2-3 and environments.

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Suman Alishetty

Michael Girgis

Public Health Mitigation Strategies

Researchers across disciplines are implementing public health strategies to encourage vaccination and leverage other methods to mitigate the spread of highly pathogenic infectious diseases.

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Vaccine Countermeasures

To facilitate the development of new vaccines to prevent spread of current and emerging pathogens, Mason researchers are creating new platform technologies including novel delivery systems to more efficiently stimulate immune response to infectious diseases, improve shelf life of new products, and to reduce side effects. Examples of new technologies include DNA origami to mimic specific viral protein assemblies, lipid nanoparticle mRNA delivery systems, and engineered extracellular vesicles.

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Virology

Our scientists are investigating critical host factors, including the body’s immune response, that are necessary for viral replication to inform the development of new countermeasures to highly infectious agents. New diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines are being evaluated. Research is conducted in vitro and in vivo in BSL-2 and BSL-3 environments and includes aerosol challenge experiments.

Currently studied viral pathogens include: Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus, Rift Valley Fever Virus, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Influenza A and B viruses, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Viruses, Dengue Virus, Chikungunya Virus, Pichinde virus, Sindbis virus, Western Equine Encephalitis Virus, and SARS-CoV-2.

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RESEARCH TRANSLATION

The Nanotrap® particle technology, licensed to Ceres Nanosciences, captures, concentrates, and preserves low abundance analytes from biological samples. This technology can be leveraged to develop rapid, multi-disease diagnostics for infectious diseases and exosomes associated with them. It can also be used to trap whole viruses.

Our researchers are using BioProspecting technology based on hydrogel microparticles  to discover peptides with potent antimicrobial, anti-biofilm, and antiviral applications. This novel BioProspecting-based approach isolates antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) from biological samples, such as Komodo dragon plasma, for analysis and modification. These efforts yielded the synthetic peptide DRGN-1, a leading candidate that promotes rapid wound closure and works against a broad spectrum of bacteria.

Protein painting, licensed to Monet Pharmaceuticals, is used to identify the exact binding site of protein complexes, serving as a tool for rational drug development.

LIM domain kinases inhibitor R10015, licensed and characterized by Virongy, inhibits the kinase activity of LIMK by binding to the ATP-binding pocket of LIMK. R10015 blocks the phosphorylation of cofilin at serine 3 in human T cells and inhibits T cell chemotaxis and chemokine-induced actin polymerization. LIMK has been shown to be involved in the infection and pathogenesis of multiple viruses such as HIV, influenza A, pseudorabies virus, EBOV, RVFV, VEEV, and HSV-1 (Liu et al., 2014; Vorster et al., 2011). LIMK inhibitors have also been shown to possess broad-spectrum antiviral activities.

RESEARCH CENTERS

The Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine team aims to transform medical research in a variety of diseases, including paving the way to earlier diagnosis and individualized treatment of specific types of diseases, through translational science and collaboration.

The Center for Infectious Disease Research conducts research to develop and evaluate diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to counter the threat of bio-terrorism and newly emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases.

The Microbiome Analysis Center is using state-of-the-art NextGen sequencing technology and analytics to diagnose and treat complex metabolic and immune diseases of the human gut microbiome.