Press Release

J. Craig Venter Donates Proceeds of King Faisal Science Award to TIGR to Fund Genome Sequencing of Deadly Cattle Disease

May 14, 2000

Rockville, MD -- The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), a not-for-profit research institute, announced today that Dr. J. Craig Venter, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Celera Genomics and Chairman of TIGR's Board of Trustees, who was awarded the King Faisal International Prize for Science (Biology), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 14, 2000, will donate proceeds of the award to TIGR. Dr. Venter is among three U.S. winners of the 2000 King Faisal International Prize who received their awards during an official ceremony in Riyadh.

The King Faisal International Prize, presented through the King Faisal Foundation, the Middle East's largest philanthropic organization, recognizes the outstanding achievements of prestigious candidates from leading institutions and organizations around the world. One of three award recipients, Dr. Venter announced he will donate the cash prize award to TIGR to help fund sequencing of the genome of the parasite Theileria parva. Sequencing of the T. parva genome is being conducted in collaboration with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya, a nonprofit research center funded by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR). The genome sequence produced by TIGR will be applied to the development of a vaccine to control ECF. The disease, which is transmitted by ticks, is caused by infection with the single-celled protozoan parasite T. parva. Once the parasite has entered the bloodstream, it invades the white blood cells of the host and causes the infected cells to multiply like cancer cells. Infected cattle die within 2-4 weeks from a leukemia-like disease. ECF causes an estimated $200 million in economic losses per year. Loss of cattle to ECF is particularly devastating for small-holder farmers for whom cattle represent a major proportion of family wealth and nutrition.

As part of a collaborative effort to combat ECF, TIGR will determine the entire genome sequence of Theileria parva using the whole genome shotgun strategy invented at TIGR and used successfully to sequence the genomes of many pathogenic bacteria, including the bacteria that cause syphilis and meningitis. "The primary reason for determining the T. parva genome sequence is to accelerate the development of a vaccine against ECF," said Hank Fitzhugh, Director General of ILRI. "Scientists have shown that cattle infected with T. parva parasites and cured by drug treatment are immune to re-infection with the parasite, suggesting that animals can be vaccinated against ECF. This method, however, which relies on the use of live parasites, is impractical and expensive. Subsequently, ILRI has been using recombinant DNA technology to develop a vaccine that would be both inexpensive and suitable for use by small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa."

One such vaccine that provides protection against the infective form of the parasite carried by ticks is currently undergoing field trials. "However, development of a vaccine to protect against the stage of the parasite that infects the white blood cells of the cow has proven to be more difficult, partly due to the difficulties of identifying the proteins produced by the parasite during this stage. Determination of the T. parva genome sequence will enable the rapid identification of all parasite proteins produced during the white cell stage of the infection," said Vish Nene, who is directing ILRI's genome effort. "This information will subsequently be used for vaccine development."

The ability of this parasite to transform normal white blood cells into cancer-like cells provides another reason for sequencing of the T. parva genome. Once inside the white cells of the host, the T. parva parasite is able to modify the biochemistry of the host cell so as to cause the infected host cells to multiply indefinitely, much like cancer cells, leading to the death of the animal. "The genome sequence, and further experimentation, will shed light on how the parasite accomplishes this feat," said Onesmo Ole Moi Yoi, Director of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Africa IMCB-A, in Nairobi, Kenya. "This knowledge may ultimately provide new insights into some human cancers, in the same way that studies of cancer-causing animal viruses in the 70's and 80's led to the identification of genes and biochemical pathways involved in human cancers."

Theileria parva is a relative of the parasite Plasmodium falciparum that causes malaria in human beings. An international consortium of sequencing centers, including TIGR, is currently involved in sequencing of the P. falciparum genome. "Comparison of the Theileria and Plasmodium genome sequences may lead to an understanding of how these parasites evade the immune responses of their hosts," said Malcolm Gardner, TIGR's principal investigator on the T. parva genome project and a participant in the malaria genome consortium. "These comparative studies also may identify biochemical pathways shared by the parasites that could lead to the development of anti-parasitic drugs."

"This ILRI-TIGR project to sequence the T. parva genome provides a good example of cooperation between a leading U.S. research institute and an Africa-based research center working on developing country problems. The project aims at helping to solve a major agricultural problem affecting one-fourth of the African continent. This project also provides opportunities for scientific exchanges and for training of African scientists in genomics research and bioinformatics," said Claire M. Fraser, President of TIGR. Several such exchanges have already taken place with funding awarded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. TIGR and ILRI also are collaborating with Chihiro Sugimoto of Hokkaido University in Japan who studies another species of Theileria that is found in Asia.