Texas Tech University

Texas Tech Experts Unified In Zoonotic & Infectious Diseases Research Center

Glenys Young

June 11, 2020

More than 30 years of activity in biology, agricultural sciences, engineering and more are behind this new endeavor.

In the midst of a global pandemic, Texas Tech University launched its new Zoonotic & Infectious Diseases Research Center. While it might be easy to assume the coronavirus was the reason behind the center's creation, that assumption would be inaccurate.


"These conversations, interestingly enough, really started back in October," said Joseph A. Heppert, vice president for research & innovation. "So, before there was COVID-19, before there was a world health crisis that developed out of a zoonotic disease, we were already in dialogue with some of the research leaders across the campus about the possibility of focusing on this area.

"It's an amazing and sort of tragic coincidence that the time we were recognizing the strengths we have in this area, and really trying to think about ways we can make our research more effective related to zoonotic disease, just happened to be the period when one of the most serious worldwide threats in zoonotic disease emerged at virtually the same time."

Many researchers within the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources are examining cattle health. Vinicius Machado, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Sciences, is hoping to minimize antimicrobial resistance by improving targeted treatment using the drugs. Kristin Hales, the Thornton Distinguished Chair and associate professor in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences, is looking to mitigate antimicrobial resistance altogether.

From the biology of zoonotic diseases in the environment to the impact they can have on agricultural industries, Texas Tech's activities related to zoonotic disease have been going on for 30 years or more. The Department of Natural Resources Management in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources (CASNR), specifically, has dealt with Chronic Wasting Disease and Bluetongue, which threaten the Central Texas hunting and ranching industries.

"Some of our field biologists have been studying the prevalence of various kinds of bacteria and viruses in different wild animal populations for decades," Heppert said. "In addition to the basic biological sciences, CASNR also has very strong emphases on beef cattle production and nutrition and the health of various kinds of domestic animals, not only beef, but also sheep, poultry and other kinds of animals as well."

With so much longstanding expertise already on one campus, Heppert said, it only made sense to bring those experts together and start a bigger conversation.

"The leaders I brought together were all from these different areas in agriculture and natural resources, from basic biology, field biological sciences and ecology, from areas like infectious diseases and engineering, where people are looking at ways to develop new kinds of systems that can mitigate or eliminate threats from some of these diseases," Heppert said. "We're trying to bring those leaders who already exist on the campus together, and ask the question, 'How can we do something much larger?'"

Steve Presley, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH), is seen here testifying before the U.S. House Science Committee in 2016 about the Zika virus. Presley is collaborating with Harvinder Gill, the Whitacre Endowed Chair of Science and Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, to develop a universal flu vaccine.

Because experts on both the Texas Tech and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) campuses are already engaged in research on zoonotic and infectious diseases, the main benefit of forming a center is to facilitate collaboration between researchers in different areas who might not otherwise cross paths.

"Faculty researchers are already doing very valuable and absolutely valid work – working in their own lab, putting together their own proposals, keeping that lab funded and vital by keeping competitive in their particular area," Heppert said. "But, I think what we look for with the formation of a center is the opportunity for individuals from very different disciplines to come together and cooperate in ways that are going to take them places they never would have gone by themselves. It's that excitement of learning how the perspectives of different disciplines can inform you about ways you can take research in directions you never would have thought of solely within your own discipline."

Researchers in the Department of Biological Sciences have been studying bat diseases. Liam McGuire is studying the fatal white-nose syndrome, while David Ray and Diana Moreno Santillán are examining how bats adapted to the coronavirus.

The key to a successful initiative, Heppert said, is not trying to create an agenda from the top, but starting from the expertise already available and building upon that.

"With Texas Tech starting the brand new School of Veterinary Medicine; with the opportunity to build faculty research interests in the area of zoonotic infectious disease; with the interests we have on our campus, both in terms of field interest and also vaccine development; and with the interests and real expertise we have at the TTUHSC in vaccine development, we have a tremendous potential to grow a world-class research facility at Texas Tech in this area," Heppert said.

"I think it's important that we do an even better job than we're doing right now, communicating to the external scholarly community around the country and around the world, what great things are happening at Texas Tech. This is a tremendous opportunity for us to do that."