MOBILE COUNTY, Ala. (WKRG) — A University of South Alabama faculty member has received a multi-million dollar grant in order to the “infection dynamics of an emerging tick-borne virus,” according to a release from USA Health.

According to the release, Meghan Hermance, Ph.D., and other researchers at USA plan to use the $2.59 million grant the “lay the groundwork for developing ways to stop transmission of an emerging tick-bone virus native to Asia.”

Tick-borne infections can lead to serious illnesses and even death in some cases to both people and pets, according to the release. Scientists and researchers at USA first “must figure out the basic infection biology of the ticks they study.”

Hermance is an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Frederick P. Whiddon College of Medicine at USA. Hermance received the five-year award to study “the infection dynamics of a tick-borne bunyavirus called severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome virus or SFTSV. Thrombocytopenia means low platelet count.”

“One major focus of this research is to understand how the bunyavirus survives the molting process between tick life stages and the timeline during which the virus disseminates between organs within the tick body,” Hermance said. “In other words, we want to determine where does the virus reside in the tick body before it ends up in the tick salivary glands and ultimately gets transmitted to the next host the tick feeds on.”

There is a rising number of SFTSV cases in Asia with a small understanding of specific treatments, high case fatality rates and a “global expansion of the tick vector,” making the virus a public health concern, according to the release.

The second part of the research is to “define the minimum amount of time an infected tick needs to feed in order to transmit the bunyavirus to a vertebrate host,” according to Hermance.

Hermance said she and her colleagues will also research the “initial immune response that occurs in the host’s skin at the feeding site of the infected tick.”

In collaboration with Hermance, two other Ph.Ds will contribute to the research.

  • Jason Strickland, Ph.D., — assistant professor in the Department of Biology at USA with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Whiddon College of Medicine
  • Thuy Phung, M.D., Ph.D., — associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Medical Director of Molecular Genetic Pathology & Dermatopathology. 

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