RALEIGH — A national team led by N.C. State University has received a $25 million federal grant to research and help control the viruses that cause food poisoning.
The money, to be disbursed over five years, will establish the NCSU-based Food Virology Collaborative, an institute dedicated to studying and preventing food-borne viruses, such as noroviruses.
These viruses are the most common cause of food poisoning. Most who fall ill because of a norovirus recover on their own, but those with severe cases sometimes need hospitalization.
The grant is the largest ever awarded for food safety by the USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture. It also is the largest grant ever received by NCSU's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"I think we can really make a difference for public health," said Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor of food science at NCSU and the leader of the project.
N.C. Central University in Durham and N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro also are among the more than 30 partners receiving funding from the grant. The national team includes university, government and industry partners.
Noroviruses can be spread from person to person, and they are a major problem in the food supply. Infected people who handle food can spread the illness. Also, shellfish and even fresh produce can be infected through contaminated water.
There are many different strains of norovirus - more than 60 at last count, Jaykus said. Though the viruses cause the same symptoms when people become infected, they are quite different from each other in the lab.
This makes noroviruses tricky for doctors and scientists to detect. There's no routine way to test patients.
Making matters worse, noroviruses are resistant to most common disinfectants, so a virus can remain on a contaminated surface even after it's been cleaned.
"You're looking at almost the perfect pathogen," Jaykus said.
The grant will fund research and education on topics ranging from antiviral disinfectants to molecular virology.
At NCSU, Jaykus said, researchers will be working on better tools for studying noroviruses, which cannot now be cultured outside the human body. They will also use NCSU's expertise in agricultural extension to educate those in the food industry.
Scientists from NCCU will collaborate directly with the NCSU team. NCCU also will use the grant to support student internships in food science and outreach to the food industry, said Dr. Li-An Yeh, a professor of pharmaceutical science at NCCU.
A&T tests disinfectant
The N.C. A&T team will focus on using tiny particles of metals, such as copper oxide and silver, to disinfect fresh produce. Scientists have already shown that these treatments can kill bacteria.
The tiny metal particles could be integrated into food packaging or encapsulated in a gel, said Leonard Williams, an N.C. A&T professor of food science and the interim director of the Center for Excellence in Post Harvest Technology.
Jaykus said she is excited about the program's large scale. "Rarely do we have the opportunity to have this amount of money to address an important problem in a very, very multidisciplinary manner," she said.
Still, with the dramatic federal spending cuts included in Tuesday's debt ceiling deal, some involved with the norovirus grant are concerned about its future.
In large multiyear grants such as this one, "there is always ... a clause that indicates that the continuation is going to be based on availability of funds," said Cathie Woteki, USDA undersecretary for research education and economics.
But, she added, because the Senate has to pass an appropriations bill, "it's really early yet to be talking about how this deal is going to be affecting our grants program."
Jaykus said she is "cautiously optimistic" about the project's survival. Food safety is a very high priority for the USDA, she said.
"I feel pretty confident that the USDA has set aside adequate funds certainly for our first three years," Jaykus said. "I'm more concerned about the latter two years."
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