Burroughs Wellcome Fund recognizes three for infectious diseases research

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) has recognized three researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis for their studies of infectious diseases.

Jeffrey P. Henderson, M.D., Ph.D., an instructor of medicine, was one of 16 scientists selected nationally to receive the BWF 2008 Career Award for Medical Scientists. Henderson studies how the bacterium Escherichia coli differs in harmless strains and strains that cause urinary tract infections. Henderson suspects that when the bacteria acquire certain small molecules that let them more effectively steal iron from their hosts, they become much more potent causes of urinary tract infections in women. The award will provide Henderson with $700,000 in research funding over five years. It is designed to help young physicians establish careers that are active in both patient care and scientific research.

David Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular microbiology and of pathology and immunology, and Dong Yu, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular microbiology, will each receive a 2008 BWF Investigators in Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease award. The awards, which recognize scientists for using multidisciplinary approaches to better understand how pathogens cause disease, provide $500,000 in research funding over five years to investigators. BWF gave 14 of the awards to researchers in the United States and Canada.

Wang uses a technique called high-throughput DNA sequencing to identify previously unrecognized disease-causing microorganisms. The approach involves chopping up all genetic material from the secretions of patients and rapidly and randomly reading the coding of that material. He will use the BWF award to identify viruses that cause acute childhood diarrhea. Currently scientists can’t attribute a third of these cases to any known virus, so Wang asserts that there is good reason to look for other causative agents.

Yu studies human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), which is more commonly known as a form of herpes virus. HCMV is linked to birth defects, heart disease and serious illness in patients with weakened immune systems. Yu has used an artificial chromosome that can reconstitute infectious virus to conduct a detailed analysis of the genetic code of HCMV, grouping the virus’ 150 genes into categories that help focus attention on those that are most important to infection and reproduction in host organisms. He will use the BWF award to study how the virus hijacks cell mechanisms normally used to repair damaged DNA.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.