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Two UW-Eau Claire Scientists
Receive $235,000 from NSF
MAILED: June 18, 2002
EAU CLAIRE — Two professors at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire recently received word that they had been awarded a $235,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Dr. Scott Hartsel, professor of chemistry, and Dr. Lloyd Turtinen, professor of biology, have received an impressive number of individual grants before, from the National Science Foundation as well as from other entities like the National Institutes of Health, but this is the single largest grant either has received and the first to support their collaborative research.
In interview, both men are ready with their favorite metaphors, indicating that both are used to, and skilled at, explaining their research to the layperson.
Hartsel will tell you that Amphotericin B, the antibiotic he has been studying for the past ten years or so, could be described as "the Swiss army knife of antifungal drugs" - an all-purpose, well-known, useful and yet dangerous tool for dealing with the kinds of infections that plague organ transplant patients, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy and people dealing with immune system disorders like AIDS. He notes that it has also been found to be effective for treating Leishmaniasis, a parasitic protozoal infection found primarily in South America and third world countries. It may also slow the course of Mad Cow Disease, which is related to the Chronic Wasting Disease Wisconsin is currently dealing with in its deer population.
Turtinen says another way to describe AmB is as "a double-edged sword." While it is extremely effective, it is highly toxic and can cause some people to become ill and suffer kidney damage in treatments lasting six months or more. It kills fungal infections but also activates the immune system that can help fight off infection. However, since some of the toxic side effects may actually be beneficial to eliminating the infection, if you reduce the side effects you may compromise the drug's effectiveness. Turtinen has for some years conducted research on cytomegalovirus infections and suppression of the immune system.
Both men came to UW-Eau Claire in the late 1980s and their related areas of research have led them to collaborate on various projects off and on for the past ten years, culminating in this latest grant.
According to Hartsel and Turtinen, the current project involves examining three different commercial preparations of Amphotericin B that are on the market. They differ physically from each other, but all three are significantly less toxic than the original Fungizone. Nobody knows exactly why and nobody has compared them all to try to discover exactly what properties make these preparations more able to selectively kill fungal infections with less damage to the human host, or how that information could be used to further improve these preparations or develop new, less toxic ones.
Some of the research will involve doing some basic science, preparing biochemical profiles of the different drugs, and the rest involves conducting systematic studies involving three factors Hartsel and Turtinen believe may influence the toxicity and selectivity of the drugs. The final portion of the research - Hartsel calls it "Lloyd's part" - involves genomic studies. The researchers will examine the responses of the genes of the immune system to the different AmB preparations and try to understand their differences and the reasons for them. Turtinen explains that advances in research have meant that it is now possible to study known clusters of genes, instead of a single gene at a time, which means the work can progress much faster.
One of the most important aspects of the project is that undergraduate students also will be involved. The NSF wants to promote undergraduate involvement in research through its Research at Undergraduate Institutions program, and Hartsel and Turtinen will have four students working with them this summer. "Because we are not trying to prove a particular hypothesis, this is a more free-wheeling kind of research. We never know what we'll find, and that's exciting for students," said Turtinen.
Part of the grant money, approximately $60,000-$70,000, will also go to buy new, state-of-the-art computerized imaging equipment, which then will be available to benefit all students in the chemistry and biology departments, not just those involved in this research.
"This grant will end up benefiting a lot of students studying biochemistry, as well as other chemistry and biology students," said Hartsel. "This is truly an interdisciplinary project."
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: June 18, 2002