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Colleen Jonsson, PhD, to Lead New Center of Excellence Established to Combat Harmful Mosquito-Transmitted Viruses

Dr. Colleen Jonsson (Photo by Allen Gillespie/UTHSC)

Colleen Jonsson, PhD, professor and Endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has been awarded over $21 million in funding to establish a Center of Excellence for Encephalitic Alphavirus Therapeutics program aimed at advancing the discovery and development of potent antiviral drug candidates targeting several harmful viruses spread to people by infected mosquitoes.

Dr. Jonsson and her collaborators are specifically investigating three New World alphaviruses that cause serious illness in humans and horses: Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV), Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV), and Western equine encephalitis virus (WEEV). Currently there are no FDA-approved treatments for any of these viruses in humans, although a vaccine for horses is available.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), preliminary symptoms of the viruses include headaches, high fever, chills, and vomiting. In severe cases, certain strains can cause inflammation of the brain and death.

“Most of us have heard of the mosquito-transmitted virus Zika, which poses the biggest threat to those who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant,” said Dr. Jonsson, who also serves as the director of UTHSC’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory. “The New World alphaviruses contribute to disease in the United States, and human cases of EEEV have been reported in nearby Georgia. These viruses are typically observed in those under age 15 and the elderly, and can be difficult to detect in mild cases, as early symptoms are similar to those of the common cold.”

In recent years, outbreaks of these viruses have largely affected those living in Central and South America. In the United States, cases have been reported in the eastern and Gulf Coast areas in states, such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. On average, there are five to 10 cases of EEEV reported annually in the U.S. according to the CDC. Of those infected, roughly 30 percent die and many survivors have ongoing neurologic problems. Additionally, there is growing concern at the national level that these emerging alphaviruses pose a biodefense threat and could be used as bioweaponry in bioterrorist attacks.
“The goal of our new Center of Excellence is to further develop novel therapeutic molecules discovered by our team that are highly potent across all three viruses, moving the optimal ones forward into pre-clinical development,” Dr. Jonsson said. “Our groundbreaking work will allow the development of this molecule and a potential new therapeutic for these harmful viruses.”

As we approach the warmer months, the CDC advises the best way to reduce one’s risk of contracting these alphaviruses are to use insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus on exposed skin and/or clothing; wear long sleeves and pants when weather permits; have secure, intact screens on windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out; and eliminate mosquito breeding sites by emptying standing water from flower pots, buckets, barrels, and other containers. Drill holes in tire swings so water drains out. Keep children’s wading pools empty and on their sides when they aren’t being used.

Dr. Jonsson’s co-investigators include Jennifer E. Golden, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy; Donghoon Chung, PhD, of the University of Louisville; Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, PhD, of the UTHSC Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry; and Bernd Meibohm, PhD of the UTHSC Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. The award entitled, “Center of Excellence for Encephalitic Alphavirus Therapeutics,” is being funded by the National Institutes of Health for five years.