Rabbit fever study receives grant

Dr. Jyotika Sharma, who recently was given a $349,108 grant to research rabbit fever. Photo courtesy of ndmedicine.org.

UND assistant professor, Jyotika Sharma, recently received a $349,108 grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue research on a rare disease called tularemia, more commonly referred to as rabbit fever.

“We were really happy to receive this grant, and it will help build this project and my lab,” Sharma said.

According to Mayo Clinic, tularemia is a respiratory infection formed from the bacteria Francisella tularensis that can attack the skin, eyes, lymph nodes, lungs and sometimes other internal organs. There is no vaccination for the disease, but, if caught in time, tularemia can be treated with antibiotics.

However, if left untreated the disease can cause pneumonia, meningitis, pericarditis, osteomyelitis and lead to death.

Tularemia most commonly affects animals such as rodents, rabbits and hares and can be spread to humans through insect bites, exposure to sick or dead animals, airborne through bacteria in soil or by eating contaminated food or water.

Tularemia has been reported in every state in the United States except for Hawaii but is most often reported in south-central United States and the northeast.  According to the Center for Disease Control, from 2003 to 2012, North Dakota reported 12 cases of tularemia, and the United States as a whole reported 1,304 cases.

Working with Sharma will be assistant professor Bibhuti Mishra, third year Ph.D. student Anthony Steichen and undergraduate student, Brandilyn Binstock.

Since there currently is no vaccination for the disease, Dr. Sharma and her team will focus on finding a vaccine. They will also study other areas of the disease, including the cause of infection.

“Currently, when NIH funding is getting harder to obtain, particularly on Francisella research, the NIH has welcomed our unique approach that takes advantage of identifying differential immune responses,” Sharma said in a recent UND newsletter. “We believe that this unique approach can serve as a platform for identifying novel vaccine candidates for other bacterial pathogens as well.”

Sharma began her research with tularemia in 2006 at the University of Texas-San Antonio when her mentor did a project on it. Sharma became interested in it because it is more prevalent than her previous research interests.

Sharma said her team will be researching for the next two years, which is how long the grant is for, and, depending on the results, further research may be required.

Ashley Marquis is a staff writer for The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected].