August 8, 2003 — A University of Utah research team has been awarded a $1,824,000 five-year grant by the National Science Foundation to study the ecology of hantavirus in deer mice that carry the potentially deadly virus and transmit it to humans.
A grant of that size is considered large for field biology research “and having it funded was a real coup,” says Denise Dearing, an associate professor of biology who will lead the research project.
She says it was among the only seven proposals funded by the National Science Foundation out of 52 proposals competing for funds made available by the agency to study the ecology of infectious diseases.
Dearing says she and her colleagues will conduct field work at approximately 25 locations within the deserts of the Great Basin “to understand how habitat fragmentation and food availability affect the occurrence of hantavirus in the primary reservoir, deer mice. Humans can develop a potentially lethal lung infection, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, after extensive contact with infected deer mice.”
In 2001, Dearing’s work received publicity in Utah after she found that almost 30 percent of deer mice were infected with hantavirus around the Bureau of Land Management’s Little Sahara Recreation area, where heavy off-road vehicle use has denuded some deer mouse habitat. The researchers theorized that such habitat fragmentation crowded the mice into smaller areas, increasing fighting, biting and scratching that aided the spread of the virus among the rodents.
In the new study, researchers will collect data in the field and use it to construct “models” or simulations to predict how hantavirus spreads among deer mice. The results will be used in other models that assess the risk the virus will spread to humans.
University of Utah faculty who will work on the project with Dearing include Fred Adler, an associate professor of mathematics and biology; Tom Cova, an assistant professor of geography; and epidemiologist Matt Samore, an associate professor of internal medicine. They will be joined by virologist Steve St. Jeor of the University of Nevada, Reno.
As of July 24, there have been 344 cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome reported nationwide since the disease first was recognized during a May 1993 outbreak in the Four Corners region of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, and 38 percent of the cases were fatal, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.