Bruce Klein and research team awarded $2 million grant for vaccine and drug treatment against white-nose syndrome, fungal disease deadly to bats

Bruce Klein, MD
Bruce Klein, MD

In a private-public collaboration, the National Science Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation have awarded a grant of more the $2 million for a research project to combat white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has been devastating to many species of hibernating bats. Bruce Klein, MD, professor, Division of Infectious Diseases, will lead the project, assisted by Marcos Isidoro Ayza, DVM. Isidoro Ayza is a PhD candidate with a background in veterinary pathology working in Klein’s lab.

Klein first came to Wisconsin in the early 1980s as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer to work with the state epidemiologist investigating an outbreak of blastomycosis, a serious infection caused by inhaling the spores of a fungus common in Wisconsin, Blastomyces dematitidis. After Klein joined the Department of Pediatrics at UW—Madison, he continued his research into the fungus, determining its pathogenesis as well as studying in depth the small genetic variations of Hmong people in Wisconsin that increased their susceptibility to serious blastomycosis infection. His research team worked to develop a possible vaccine against Blastomyces dermatitidis, and in the process discovered that the mechanism of the vaccine would also likely also be effective against many other pathogenic fungi.

Klein discovered that a particular molecule of Blastomyces dermititidis seemed to cause a protective immune response during the testing of the vaccine in animals. “We did quite a bit of work with this molecule, or antigen, and discovered that it’s highly conserved in the genome of a portion of the fungal kingdom that includes the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome,” Klein said. It was possible the vaccine could be used against that fungus.

White-nose syndrome is caused by Pseudogymnoascus destructans, an invasive fungus that thrives in the cold and grows on and into the skin of hibernating bats, disrupting their hibernation cycle. Prematurely awakened, the bats suffer from dehydration, starvation, and frequently death. It is now present in 38 states and eight Canadian provinces. The populations of three species of bats (of the 12 that are affected) have declined by over 90% in less than 10 years. White-nose syndrome could lead to their extinction in a very short time.

Klein’s lab has been developing the potential vaccine against WNS with Tonie Rocke, a research epidemiologist from the U.S. Geological Survey, and others. Klein and collaborating labs will build on previous vaccine research, completing laboratory testing and embarking on two years of field research. Initial field tests showed promise. Further field research will be coordinated by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in multiple states where bat populations are at risk. In addition, the project will investigate efficacy of an already FDA-approved drug called a receptor inhibitor that could further protect bats against the disease. The drug will be tested alone and in conjunction with a promising vaccine as potential protection against the fungus.

This research project is one of six new projects funded with $8 million through a partnership between the National Science Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation called Partnership to Advance Conservation Science and Practice (PACSP). The overarching goal of the PACSP is to advance biodiversity conservation through teams of researchers and conservationists developing science-based conservation action plans, tools, and processes that can be realized in the world.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison published “New funding to protect bats from fungal epidemic hinges on UW–Madison discoveries” on March 22, 2023.