While its sister campus in the Valley fights cancer, this Flagstaff research facility unravels such infectious diseases as anthrax and bird flu.
If you think Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection and Jay Leno’s car collection are impressive, you should see the collection Dr. Paul Keim has at the TGen North facility in Flagstaff – but you probably won’t want to,
considering his copious collection is a medley of deadly diseases and pathogen spores.
Anthrax, bird flu, and cholera, oh my.
But Dr. Keim wouldn’t have it any other way. As Director of TGen’s Pathogen Genomics Division, it’s his job to study infectious microbial killers and trace outbreaks to their sources – hence his nickname, “Biohunter.”
As detailed in our April feature, “TGen,” the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix analyzes the DNA in human genomes to try and find better treatment options for cancer and other devastating diseases. Staff at TGen North also analyzes DNA, but in their case, they’re looking at the genomes of things like E.coli, salmonella, and plague. There are dozens of pathogens, hundreds of species and thousands of specimens stored at TGen North; the most dangerous ones, such as anthrax, are stored nearby at the Bio Safety Level 3 labs at Northern Arizona University, where Dr. Keim is the Cowden Endowed Chair of Microbiology.
“My division at TGen is focused upon exploring the DNA and using the DNA of germs,” Keim says. “We don’t generally use the word ‘germs,’ but that’s a popular term that kind of grabs all these infectious disease agents. But at the heart of these germs is DNA. And if we can go in and query or analyze the DNA of the germs, in exactly the same way the rest of TGen does the human genome – if we can do that, first off, we can track these diseases, we can understand what’s behind a disease outbreak.”
Like, perhaps, a disgruntled Army researcher, or peacekeepers from Nepal.
Dr. Keim was involved in the FBI investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which spores of the dangerous bacteria were sent through the mail, killing five people and sickening 17 others. At the time, the FBI, lacking a biosafety Level 3 lab, flew anthrax samples from around the globe – under heavy military guard – to the Flagstaff airport for further-guarded transport to NAU and TGen North. Keim helped trace the anthrax-laden letters to a man named Bruce E. Ivins, an Army researcher who committed suicide in 2008 as investigators closed in on him.
Following a devastating earthquake in January 2010, Haiti was hit by a cholera outbreak. By March 2011, the intestinal disease had claimed more than 6,000 lives and sickened around 300,000 people. Again, Dr. Keim was called in to find the source of the outbreak. By comparing the DNA of 10 cholera samples from Haiti with the DNA of 24 cholera samples from five different districts in Nepal, Keim found that all the samples matched, and some “were almost identical.” Further analysis traced the samples to a sewage spill from a Nepali peacekeeping base near Haiti’s Artibonite River.
But researchers at TGen North aren’t just looking for the genesis of infectious diseases – they’re looking for ways to arrest and prevent them, too. Once they know a pathogen and its origin, Keim says, “We can also use the DNA to help develop drugs and therapeutic responses to diseases.”
“It’s really a three-fold translational mission we have,” Keim continues. “One is to track diseases – and this is a general area called epidemiology – and then the second would be diagnostics, and the third would be therapeutics.”
Keim says he’s currently working on “20 or 30 different pathogens,” including focusing on influenza, staph and Valley Fever. “Staph is a large group of bacterial pathogens that includes these antibiotic-resistant MRSAs [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] called superbugs. So that still remains a major challenge in the health care setting,” Keim says. “In Arizona, one of the things we’re very interested in is Valley Fever, and we’re using, again, the genomics to build better diagnostics and also to try and understand where this pathogen lives and how it infects people.”