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ETSU, Vanderbilt partner for $2.4M federal grant
Williams and Sherwood

JOHNSON CITY (May 26, 2016) – Researchers from East Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt University recently garnered a $2.4 million federal grant to jointly study a cutting-edge concept in the world of immunology.

The four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health will allow principal investigators Dr. David Williams, a professor of surgery at ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine, and Dr. Ed Sherwood, a professor of anesthesiology at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, to collaboratively research the concept of trained immunity.

“We have two types of immunity – innate and adaptive. Adaptive immunity is very specific. It learns how and when to respond. As an example, vaccines fool the body into thinking it is infected so that you mount a response to a specific disease and then you are protected against the disease for long periods of time,” Williams explained. “Your body’s innate immunity is always on, always patrolling the external environment to see what is out there and protecting you from it by recognizing and responding to threats to the body.”

However, innate immunity was thought to be non-specific in that it could not “learn” how to recognize specific diseases, Williams noted.

Now, Williams and Sherwood aim to determine whether it is possible to “train” the innate immune system of critically ill patients so that they have increased resistance to existing and future infections.

The research team at ETSU will be focused on critically ill patients with sepsis, a disease that nearly one million patients develop each year, with half of those individuals ending up in an Intensive Care Unit at a hospital. More than 28 percent of those who contract sepsis die while survivors of the disease may ultimately succumb to widespread organ dysfunction, Williams said.

“Sepsis causes suppression of the immune system, which predisposes the critically ill patient to secondary infections,” Williams explained. “Attempts at developing effective therapies to prevent or treat sepsis and its associated immunosuppression have proven to be exceedingly difficult. In fact, no drugs are currently approved by the FDA for the management of sepsis.”

Burn patients are also highly susceptible to infections, according to Sherwood, who will lead the Vanderbilt researchers as they study trained immunity in burn wound infections.

Through the creation of a synthesized compound that mimics the innate immune system’s ability to patrol the environment, the research team hopes to train the compromised immune system of a sepsis or burn patient to prevent or significantly reduce instances of infection.

“What we expect is that it will increase resistance to disease in both cases – sepsis and burns,” Williams said. “The end goal is to develop a better treatment for these diseases that are so difficult to treat. Anything we can do would be an advance.”

This is the first collaborative grant between the two institutions in recent history.

“This collaboration is great. We are both in Tennessee, our labs have common expertise, but each research group also has different areas of expertise that creates synergistic collaboration,” Sherwood said. “I am excited to see what this group brings to the project.”

Williams is co-director of ETSU’s Center for Inflammation, Infectious Disease and Immunity (CIIDI) while Sherwood is an affiliate CIIDI member. They are joined on the team-based project by approximately 10 others, including ETSU’s Dr. John Kalbfleisch, a professor of biometry and medical commuting; Dr. Tammy Ozment, an assistant professor of surgery; Dr. Gary Wright, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences; Dr. Harry Ensley, an adjunct associate professor of surgery; and Dr. Doug Lowman, an adjunct professor of surgery.

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