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South Coast Scientist Does Groundbreaking Research On Whooping Cough In Hopes Of Stopping Its Spread

Whooping cough is a dangerous disease that can be fatal, especially for infants. The concern is that the number of cases has dramatically increased over the last few decades. A scientist on the South Coast is doing groundbreaking research on whooping cough in hopes that it leads to stopping the spread of this harmful disease.

David Lopez is getting a vaccination at the Eastside Neighborhood Clinic in Santa Barbara. The vaccine is called Tdap. It’s three shots in one: tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis also known as whooping cough. 

Whooping cough is a bacterial disease in the respiratory system that can be deadly, says Dr. Charles Fenzi, Chief Medical Officer of Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics.

“It can cause a horrible cough. It’s called a paroxysmal cough where you cough cough cough cough until you run out of breath, you go “whooo” …so you have this whoop. For little children, the airways will swell and they can’t breathe,” he said.

While people of any age who have not been vaccinated are at risk of getting the disease, it’s most serious for young children.

The number of whooping cough cases has quadrupled since the 1980s. The Centers for Disease Control says tens of thousands of cases are reported each year in the United States, with up to 15 babies dying annually. Researchers believe the rise is due in part to lower vaccination rates and to less effectiveness of the vaccine.

However, research that’s happening at a lab in Santa Barbara could someday lead to whooping cough’s rapid decline.

Dr. Steve Julio, an associate professor of biology at Westmont College, is leading research into this bacteria.

“Bordatella has found a way to avoid the immune response So, we are trying to tease apart the bacteria and see exactly what genes it uses to be able to cause the disease,” he said.

In 2011, Julio found a gene in the bacteria called PLRS that plays a role in the disease. But it wasn’t until more recently that he and his colleagues discovered how significant a role this gene plays.

“We now understand that it sits at the very top of a really complex genetic hierarchy for the bacteria. If you don’t have this gene – if you’re bordatella – you are completely dead in the water. So, it really does call the shots for how the bacteria is able to recognize that ‘Hey, I’m inside a respiratory tract’ and then to be able to survive against the immune response,” he said.

His lab, in collaboration with researchers at the University of North Carolina, has determined that this gene controls the expression of many other genes that have never been identified before.

Westmont senior Kayla Doane is one of five biology students working in Julio’s lab who’s devising a system to identify these other genes.

“There are several genes that go into making the bacteria work and making it infectious and that kind of thing. So, we’re trying to figure out which ones those are and how to stop it,” she said.

This research could potentially lead to the creation of a more effective vaccine for whooping cough, says Julio.

“If we could design a better vaccine that totally prevented the bacteria from surviving anywhere in the respiratory tract, we could also prevent transmission. Right now with the current vaccine, the person who was vaccinated won’t get the disease but he or she is still able to spread it to susceptible individuals,” he said.

A new and improved vaccine using his research may be a decade away, but he says he's making progress.