As conditions ripen for a fresh outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida in Maryland, scientists in Baltimore are gearing up for one of the
most extensive research projects ever undertaken on the toxic, whip-tailed micro-organisms. The National Institutes of Health’s
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has awarded a five-year, $6.3 million Pfiesteria research grant to the
University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute’s Center of Marine
Biotechnology (COMB) and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The grant will fund four interconnected research projects and two supporting core facilities. Researchers will conduct
neurocognitive and neurotoxologic studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the base for the administrative
core. Another core facility will be established at COMB to culture the Pfiesteria species implicated in fish kills and human
symptoms in Maryland. Researchers there will study the mechanisms underlying Pfiesteria toxicity and toxin production. They
also will work to develop DNA "fingerprinting" tools to monitor, identify and classify Pfiesteria species.
J.Glenn Morris Jr., MD, professor of medicine, epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland, Yonathan
Zohar, PhD, professor and director of COMB, and Patricia Charache, MD, professor of pathology, medicine and oncology at
Johns Hopkins, will oversee administration of the research.
"Pfiesteria, with its propensity for killing fish and its human health effects, has generated great public concern and had a
profound economic impact on affected areas," says Morris, who heads a medical team appointed by the Maryland Department
of Health and Mental Hygiene to evaluate people reporting symptoms of Pfiesteria exposure. "Data from these studies are
essential if we are to understand the real risks associated with this micro-organism and to develop rational interventions to
protect public health." Lynn Grattan, PhD, associate professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine,
will be principal investigator on research into the attention and memory disturbances documented in people exposed last
summer to Maryland waterways containing Pfiesteria toxins. Grattan and Christopher Bever, MD, professor of neurology at the
School of Medicine, will use the results of clinical neurologic exams and technologies, including electroencephalograph (EEG),
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), to learn more about the parts of the
brain affected by exposure, as well as the severity and patterns of neuropsychological deficits.
Ellen Silbergeld, PhD, Amira Eldefrawi, PhD, and Edson Albuquerque, MD, PhD, will work to identify the neurotoxic agent or
agents produced by Pfiesteria and to understand the mechanisms underlying the neuropsychological deficits that exposure can
cause. A professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland, Silbergeld is principal investigator
on the neurotoxicity study. Eldefrawi is a professor of pharmacology, and Albuquerque is professor and chairman of
pharmacology at the University of Maryland.
Another University of Maryland researcher, Andrew Kane, PhD, will be co-principal investigator in the core facility for the
culture of toxic dinoflagellates, at COMB. Kane is an assistant professor of pathology in the aquatic pathobiology laboratory.
Principal investigators at the COMB core lab are Zohar and Gerardo R. Vasta, PhD, professor of biochemistry and
immunology at UMBI.
"The mechanisms by which the toxins act at the level of the brain cannot be understood until enough toxins are produced in the
lab," says Zohar. "This is exactly what we will do at COMB."