The University of Maine has joined a consortium of seven universities in the region to form the New England Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases (NEWVEC). The project received a $10 million five-year award starting in July from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), $694,363 of which was awarded to the University of Maine.

NEWVEC, which is based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is one of four regional centers of excellence designated by the CDC to reduce the risk of vector-borne diseases spread by ticks, mosquitos and other blood-sucking arthropods in the United States, like Lyme disease and West Nile virus. In addition to UMaine and UMass Amherst, NEWVEC includes partners at University of Rhode Island, Northern Vermont University, Western Connecticut State University, University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth College. 

“NEWVEC provides a unique opportunity to bring together talented research scientists, public health practitioners, and Extension outreach personnel in a concerted effort to address this public health challenge,” says Stephen Rich, executive director of NEWVEC and professor in the Department of Microbiology at UMass Amherst. 

Allison Gardner, assistant professor of arthropod vector biology at the School of Biology and Ecology, is a co-principal investigator of the project and the lead investigator for Maine. Gardner was involved in writing the proposal for NEWVEC, along with colleagues at the partner universities across the region. 

“As we all know well from the COVID-19 pandemic, pathogens ignore borders so there is a need for coordination of research and vector control throughout the region,” Gardner says. “The six New England states have among the highest Lyme disease human case rates per capita in the country, and several new pathogens and invasive tick and mosquito species are on the rise. The center will be the first multistate effort with a New England focus to develop new strategies and tools to manage the growing vector-borne disease burden in the region.”

Gardner says that as part of NEWVEC, researchers at UMaine will participate in several of the core research areas of the center, especially those focused on landscape management strategies to inhibit tick-borne disease transmission in forest and residential settings. Through NEWVEC, she hopes to deepen the university’s engagement with other vector-borne disease researchers and organizations in the state, including MaineHealth Institute for Research, the University of Southern Maine and the Maine CDC.

“Another major goal of the center is to develop a community of practice that will engage academic researchers, public health organizations and other stakeholder groups in integrated vector management,” Gardner says.

NEWVEC will also offer opportunities for UMaine graduate students to participate in specialized training in medical entomology and public health and interact with other undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral trainees throughout the New England region.

“UMaine is a great campus to train the next generation of vector-borne disease researchers,” Gardner says. “We have a strong entomology program with diverse course offerings for undergraduate and graduate students; a growing cohort of students and faculty working in the One Health and the Environment research area; a successful tick and tick-borne pathogen passive surveillance, research and outreach program led through the UMaine Extension Diagnostic and Research Laboratory; and a record of community engagement in vector-borne disease issues through the Maine Forest Tick Survey citizen science program. We hope that students in the center will benefit from all these resources and opportunities offered at UMaine.”