Jay Graham Receives Major NIH Award

Jay Graham, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and Department of Global Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), has received an International Research Scientist Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to allow him to develop his research on infectious diseases associated with livestock. “Diarrheal diseases are one of the main killers of children under age five in low-income countries, and we don’t know enough about how exposure to animals, especially their feces, may contribute to these illnesses,” Graham explains. “This NIH support will enable me to further develop my research skills and conduct more cutting-edge research on disease-causing bacteria in livestock – with the ultimate goal of reducing the toll of diarrheal disease in children around the world.”

Graham received a grant in the amount of $660,866 to conduct this project, which will run through 2017. These awards, which are also known as K01s, are designed to help scientists gain the knowledge and experience necessary to become successful independent researchers.  Over the next four years, Graham will receive mentoring from more senior-level experts in epidemiology and microbiology, primarily Melissa Perry, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) at SPHHS, and Gabriel Trueba of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. Along with colleagues in Ecuador, Graham will collect fecal samples from food animals and children to investigate factors that increase the risk of disease transmission.

Understanding animals’ role in diarrheal disease

“We know that many animal species carry bacteria that cause gastrointestinal diseases in humans,” says Graham. “But how much of the disease we see in children comes from animals, and what factors contribute to its spread? And, is it possible that increased production of animals for human consumption could augment the risk of these infections? We don’t have a good understanding of that yet.”

To date, most research into human enteric infections (diseases of the gastrointestinal tract) has focused on how exposure to microorganisms in human feces spreads disease.  This knowledge has informed the push for global access to toilets, latrines, and other forms of “improved sanitation” that prevent human feces from contaminating water or otherwise spreading microorganisms. Researchers do not have a similar body of knowledge or intervention toolbox when it comes to transmission of enteric disease from food animals to humans.

“Our hypothesis is that certain animal species and certain animal management practices are associated with greater exposures to disease-producing bacteria,” says Graham. “If we can identify these factors, such as housing a certain species of animal at a greater distance from the home, for example, we can recommend strategies to reduce the spread of pathogens to humans.”

This knowledge will become increasingly important, Graham notes, as a growing demand for meat, poultry, and dairy products in low- and middle-income countries leads to a larger global livestock population, which may have consequences for both small-scale and large-scale livestock producers. Currently, it is estimated that about two-thirds of the rural poor keep livestock.

Building cutting-edge research skills

In proposing his research to NIH, Graham identified two areas in which he needed continued mentorship: advanced epidemiologic methods and molecular microbiology. Perry, who serves as the president-elect of the American College of Epidemiology as well as chair of Graham’s department, will help Graham learn new epidemiologic methods for characterizing the spread of enteric diseases from animals to humans. Trueba will provide mentoring in veterinary microbiology. Professor Lance Price of the EOH Department is also part of the mentoring team, offering expertise in genomic analysis of bacterial pathogens that infect animals and humans.

“A K01 award is a tremendous accomplishment for a researcher,” says Perry. “We congratulate Dr. Graham and look forward to helping him develop the skills to be a leading global environmental health researcher.”

“It is an honor to receive this award from NIH,” says Graham. “I’m really looking forward to this collaborative effort and learning more advanced research techniques from my colleagues. And, I’m confident that this research will be very productive and help close an important gap in our understanding of zoonotic disease transmission.”