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Yale Infectious Disease Expert Named HHMI Investigator


New Haven, Conn. — Erol Fikrig, M.D., a Yale School of Medicine researcher who specializes in the study and treatment of Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and other vector-borne diseases, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.

HHMI is a non-profit medical research organization that invests in the support, training, and education of the nation’s most creative and promising scientists. Its investigators are chosen through rigorous national competitions. The organization was founded in 1953 by aviator and industrialist Howard R. Hughes.

Fikrig, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Medicine, also studies human granulocytic ehrlichiosis, a newly described pathogen transmitted by ticks. His research focuses on molecular strategies the biological agent uses to survive in white blood cells.

“Erol Fikrig is an outstanding scientist who studies the important interactions between tick-borne bacteria and their vector hosts,” said Robert Alpern, M.D., dean of the medical school. “These are important scientific and medical issues, the understanding of which will save lives.”

Fikrig’s research has led to a new understanding of the relationship between the pathogens that transmit the diseases, the vectors (i.e. organisms) that carry the pathogens, and the hosts they infect. Information from his studies is suggesting new strategies to prevent and treat Lyme disease, West Nile encephalitis, and other infections, by interrupting these relationships.

His first project after coming to Yale in 1988 was developing and testing a Lyme disease vaccine with HHMI investigator Richard Flavell, chair of the Department of Immunobiology and who remains a frequent collaborator. While the vaccine was being developed, Fikrig made the first of a series of important discoveries about the life cycle of the bacterium. He demonstrated that, in moving between the tick and humans, the bacterium covers itself with a protein drawn from the tick’s saliva. That protein helps the bacterium avoid attack by the human immune system.

Fikrig also discovered that the bacterium has a way of inducing the tick to make more of the protective saliva protein. That finding has led Fikrig to investigate the ways human pathogens interact with their environments, often by manipulating the biological mechanisms of their hosts. Through his studies he has uncovered new ways to disrupt pathogens at various stages in their life cycles, not just when they are infecting humans


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