UT and Atom Sciences Collaborate on NIH Grant to Develop Test for Major African Disease

OAK RIDGE and KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A new grant from the National Institutes of Health will help researchers at Atom Sciences and the University of Tennessee better understand how people in rural Africa contract a deadly disease known as Buruli ulcer.

The grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) to Atom Sciences will enable the company, in partnership with UT, to test a new diagnostic technique to determine how a person might have acquired the disease from the environment around them.

Prominent in West Africa, the disease resembles leprosy, causing a skin lesion that can lead to infections so severe that limbs may simply fall off, and that the body is unable to fight. The disease is particularly difficult to cure without removing the infected area from the person’s body.

Buruli ulcer is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium ulcerans. The disease itself is not contagious; infected persons acquire the bacteria from their environment. Atom Sciences’ new diagnostic technique may allow researchers to know where a person first acquired the bacteria.

Atom Sciences researcher Richard Hurt will lead the study, working with UT microbiology professor Pamela Small. Small, a leading expert in the study of Buruli ulcer, will provide a number of samples for use in testing the new technique.

The diagnostic relies on a genetic analysis of the bacteria. Hurt and Small will compare test results with different strains of the bacteria to refine the diagnostic’s ability to detect the subtle genetic differences between bacteria that come from different environmental sources, such as contaminated water sources.

By understanding the sources, medical professionals and researchers will be better able to understand how people acquire the disease, which is known in some areas of Africa as “wounds that do not heal,” according to Small.

As the bacteria progresses, it produces toxins that suppress the immune system, eventually destroying skin and underlying tissue. The World Health Organization has said finding the source of this disease is one of the two most important research priorities in its Global Buruli Ulcer Initiative.

The grant, for more than $98,000 during a six-month period, will serve as a pilot test of the new diagnostic technique. As the technique is refined, it also will be adapted to detect other important pathogens.


Contacts:

Tom Whitaker, president, Atom Sciences (865-483-1113, whitaker@atom-sci.com)
Jay Mayfield, UT media relations (865-974-9409, jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu)