Preventing Childhood Deaths from Infectious Diseases: ARUP Scientist Awarded Prestigious Gates Foundation Grant

May 27, 2016

The grant’s purpose is to help decrease the high mortality rate of children with infectious diseases in resource-limited settings.


ARUP Laboratories Medical Director Robert Schlaberg, MD, Dr Med, MPH, will be the Principal Investigator for a project to help decrease the high mortality rate of children with infectious diseases in resource-limited settings. This work is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The grant is part of the foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations, which fosters innovation to solve global health and development problems. More than 1,400 applications were received; Schlaberg is one of 43 individuals to receive grants, which were awarded May 26, 2016.

His proposal, titled Universal Pathogen Detection in Post Mortem Tissues, will use universal pathogen detection based on next-generation DNA sequencing to identify fatal infections. Using RNA-sequencing and Taxonomer, a new analysis tool co-developed by Schlaberg, scientists will be able to identify the cause of death by detecting all known pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, in post mortem tissues. Scientists will also differentiate infectious from noninfectious causes of death by immune profiling.

“The diagnostic tests that pick up on what is causing the child’s infection are often lacking, and children may not be seen by a healthcare provider in time,” says Schlaberg, who notes that some 5 million children under age 5 die each year from infectious diseases. Most of the fatalities stem from different types of pneumonia and diarrhea-causing infections, but hepatitis, meningitis/encephalitis, and sepsis are also culprits.

Most of these deaths are preventable; it’s a tragedy. To prevent them, you first need to know what is causing the disease. With this technology, we have the methods to make a huge difference.

Robert Schlaberg, MD, Dr Med, MPH, Medical Director, ARUP

Robert Schlaberg, MD, Dr Med, MPH

Schlaberg’s findings could ultimately help plan vaccine and prevention efforts and provide recommendations on treatments. “While we know the cause of many severe infections, such as malaria, in resource-limited settings, things become much more difficult when routine treatments for these common causes fail,” explains Schlaberg, pointing out that doctors may cast a wide net and base guesses on the most common known causes, which often happens with pneumonia. “Knowing the less common or unexpected causes will help design better preventative measures and treatment programs,” explains Schlaberg. He is also an assistant professor of clinical pathology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Schlaberg’s lab has shown that next-generation DNA sequencing and data analysis with Taxonomer can be used to diagnose infections in routine patient samples that are missed with standard methods. Data analysis using Taxonomer extends the breadth of what can be detected—all known pathogens—and expedites results, providing analysis within seconds versus hours or days using conventional data-analysis methods. Results can also show whether a patient’s immune system is responding to an infection. This can be used to differentiate infectious diseases from non-infectious mimics.

“Most of these deaths are preventable; it’s a tragedy,” says Schlaberg. “To prevent them, you first need to know what is causing the disease. With this technology, we have the methods to make a huge difference.”

Schlaberg’s research has been supported by Primary Children’s Hospital Foundation, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, the University of Utah Center for Clinical & Translational Science, and the University of Utah’s Vice President’s Clinical and Translational Research Scholars Program (VPCAT)

By Peta Owens-Liston, ARUP Science Communications Writer