WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University, Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame have joined the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases. The $10 million Midwest Center, run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is funded for five years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“New Indiana partners strengthen the center’s ability to advance innovative vector control approaches for mosquito and tick threats that are unique to the Midwestern environment,” said Lyric Bartholomay, professor of pathobiological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-director of the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases. “Connections to these three outstanding universities offer the exciting potential to train Hoosiers to join the battle against vector-borne diseases.”
The center’s first round of funding in 2017 established collaboration between universities and public health agencies in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota. Together, they work to better control mosquitoes and ticks, vectors for the spread of pathogens.
The academic partners, who will work closely with the Indiana Department of Health, all have industry connections and expertise in vector control product development. This includes designing, testing, and evaluating new insecticides, sprays, and mosquito and tick control devices.
“We are grateful and excited to be included in this second round,” said Catherine Hill, professor and acting head of Purdue’s entomology department at the College of Agriculture. “Unfortunately, mosquitoes and ticks pay no attention to state borders.”
The three universities will conduct a series of user acceptance studies of products designed to control ticks and mosquitoes.
“Having stakeholder buy-in, especially for vector control, is critical,” said Molly Duman Scheel, Navari family professor of medical and molecular genetics at IU School of Medicine-South Bend. “When they feel part of the technology development process, people embrace it. And if they adopt it, they are more likely to use it.
The project will also provide opportunities for early career scientists. One of the main goals is to train the next generation of vector biologists by training students and providing early career scientists with new professional opportunities.
“Because Indiana is now part of the center, the educational part is going to be important,” said John Grieco, research professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame. “We are now included in all discussions of the various vector-related issues in our state. It brings everyone together into a cohesive unit.
The Hill’s Purdue team is researching plant-based, minimal-risk products to fight Lyme disease and nuisance ticks.
“Ticks are a big problem,” Hill said. “And one tick, in particular – Ixodes scapularis, the Lyme disease tick – is a vector for Lyme disease and several other diseases in the area.”
The lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) and dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) also pose problems for Indiana. And as climate change continues, they also pose a potential invasion problem for areas north of Indiana.
“The focus will be on the Lyme disease tick because it’s public enemy No. 1 in North America,” Hill said. But the Asian long-horned tick could one day pose a threat. An invasive species first detected in the United States in 2017, it has now established itself here. The tick is found in 17 states, including Kentucky, which borders Indiana south. If it moves north, it could become a vector for various human pathogens. But the tick also threatens livestock and other animals.
In her role at Purdue Extension, Hill receives many questions about how people can control ticks on their properties without using highly toxic synthetic insecticides. Purdue’s goal of a plant-based product would help. There are permethrin- or pyrethroid-based neurotoxins that are reasonably safe for humans, Hill said, “but I don’t like the idea of putting them in the environment.”
Scheel’s lab will target Culex mosquitoes, carriers of the West Nile virus.
“West Nile virus is one of the major impacts on Hoosiers in terms of mosquito-borne diseases in the United States,” said Scheel, who is also an adjunct associate professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame. The virus is also affecting Chicago, where his lab will join the Culex Center for Larval Control’s ongoing field tests.
Scheel’s lab modifies the yeast to include an environmentally safe RNA-based pesticide that can be given to mosquitoes. The yeast is dead when fed to the larvae, preventing the release of live microorganisms into the environment. Researchers use RNA technology extensively to study gene function. Scheel aims to bring technology from the lab to the field.
“The RNA is directed specifically against mosquito genes and not against humans or other insects,” she explained. “Some pesticides widely used around the world are not environmentally friendly or specific to mosquitoes.”
In recent years, Scheel’s team has conducted extensive public engagement studies on Trinidad in the Caribbean with funding from the US Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense. His team will also begin doing public outreach in the United States, with support from the CDC grant.
“When we do this stakeholder engagement, we also teach a lot of people about mosquitoes. It will be an immediate impact,” Scheel said.
The laboratory that Grieco directs with Nicole Achee, teacher-researcher in biological sciences at Notre-Dame, develops space repellents. Unlike topical skin repellents, spatial repellents include hanging strips or tabletop devices that create a mosquito-free environment in a certain area.
“We’re trying to focus more on natural products — botanicals, geranium oils and other extracts — because those will be much more accepted by the US market,” Grieco said.
Grieco and Achee tested mosquito control methods to reduce malaria and dengue fever in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Their work has included knowledge, attitude and practice assessments of their products with local residents. They envision students in Notre Dame’s Master of Science in Global Health program undertaking such assessments as capstone projects.
Notre Dame researchers recently began conducting Trials of Improved Practices (TIPS) to make product improvements. They will now start adding lessons learned from the TIPS studies into their US assessments.
Once a final product is developed, it must then go through numerous US and global regulatory bodies to ensure it meets environmental safety requirements.