3 research centers win funds to study Pfiesteria Hopkins, UM facilities to share $6.3 million, five-year NIH grant

August 19, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Three Baltimore research centers have won a $6.3 million federal grant to study toxic Pfiesteria and its effects on human health.

Researchers at the University of Maryland medical school, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute will share the five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The money will pay for four projects, including studies on Pfiesteria's toxins and their effect on the human brain. It also will fund a state-of-the-art laboratory where water and fish samples can be tested for the presence of the toxic microbe.

"We won't have to send samples [out of state] and wait for the results," said Karen V. Poe, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "That should help a lot" if Pfiesteria outbreaks continue in Maryland, as experts expect.

State biologists found renewed signs yesterday that Pfiesteria piscicida's toxic form is attacking fish on Shiles Creek, near the Eastern Shore town of Whitehaven, for the second time in as many weeks. But Poe said health officials decided not to close the Wicomico County creek to public use because no evidence was found of a major Pfiesteria outbreak.

"The numbers are small and we have not seen large numbers of distressed fish, nor have we seen fish kills," Poe said. The small creek, which flows into the Wicomico River, "is not a heavily fished area, not a heavily boated area, and not a lot of people swim there," she said.

A state Department of Natural Resources crew sampled the creek yesterday, two weeks after tests there turned up the first signs of Pfiesteria activity in Maryland this year.

On Aug. 4 and 5, DNR biologists found that 31 of 151 menhaden they caught on the creek bore bloody lesions like those caused by Pfiesteria. A week's worth of stepped-up monitoring then found no further signs of the toxic microorganism.

The DNR crew returned yesterday, found fresh lesions on 89 of 535 menhaden caught in the creek and planned to sample the area again today, said DNR spokesman John Surrick.

"It's certainly not enough to trigger a closure, but it is greater than we'd like to see and we'd like to keep an eye on it," Surrick said.

Yesterday's finding is a sign that the small, migratory bait fish have begun to form schools at the mouths of Chesapeake Bay rivers and creeks, as they do every summer.

Experts suspect the schools of menhaden send out a chemical signal that triggers Pfiesteria's shift from a benign form to a toxic one.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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