Tick researchers form university all-star team

An engorged adult female deer tick undergoing laboratory examination. — Courtesy Stephen Rich

A landmark initiative has been launched at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Fueled by a $10 million Centers for Disease Control grant, the New England Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases began July 1, with a mandate to lower the risk of vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease. 

Stephen Rich, a tick researcher and professor at UMass, is the executive director of the center. Rich has brought together experts from several states to foster cooperative research. “We have co-investigators in each of the six New England states,” Rich said. They hail from the University of Rhode Island, University of Maine, University of New Hampshire, Western Connecticut State University, Northern Vermont University, and Tufts University.

Tufts University tick researcher Sam Telford said Rich landed the CDC grant. “Bless his soul, he wrote a really wonderful grant proposal,” Telford said. Telford said he was “very happy” to be on the collaborative team, and hopes to pursue mosquito research, among other things. 

Rich said the focus is on ticks and mosquitoes, but other arthropods will also be researched.

Telford suggested fleas, lice, and deerflies may be among them. 

“We’re very excited,” Rich said. “I think the really cool thing about it is it gets everybody into the same — at least for the short term — silo, instead of working separately and sort of competing for the same research dollars.”

“The center itself has three legs,” Rich said. “It has a research component, so we’ll continue to figure out ways to reduce the numbers of ticks and the exposure of human-biting ticks, test repellents, and all those kinds of things. But we’re also training the next generation of folks who will be working on these kinds of challenges … But the third leg of it is the thing I’m most excited about, which is building communities of practice. Rather than having researchers work in the lab and in the field like we usually do, and sort of come up with our solutions, there will be more of a communication between the stakeholders — public health agencies, but also the public, the people who are using these modalities that are being developed.”

One advantage to that approach, Rich said, may be discovering that something that works in labs might not prove effective in people’s homes or everyday lives. 

Rich said the hiring of an entire staff, including a program manager, support staff, postdoctorals, and graduate students, will take place over the next six months.

“I hope it’s a game-changer,” he said of the center.