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Tracking disease

For someone who humbly says that he’s rarely the smartest one in the room, Northern Arizona University alum Lance Price is one of the top researchers in the growing field of genomic epidemiology – the study of tracing the root of diseases. Today, he continues to work with the university as an adjunct faculty member while simultaneously heading up two research departments at TGen North – located in Flagstaff – and teaching in the nation’s capital at George Washington University.

As an undergraduate student, Price says he began performing research early on, and learned a lot of what he uses today from two professors he credits as being his mentors – Paul Keim and Richard Shand

“It was pivotal,” Price says. “Paul Keim and Richard Shand had different styles. Shand was very micromanaging – he kept an eye on me – and I learned so much about bacterial and research techniques. Then I went to Paul’s lab, and he gave me a lot of freedom, and allowed me to really expand on my own with light-handed guidance.”

Keim once instructed Price, but today, they are partners in researching the genomes of diseases.

“He continues to be my best collaborator, friend, and mentor,” Price says.

At TGen, Price is the director for two different departments: the Center for Microbiomics and Human Health, and the Center for Food Microbiology and Human Health.

“In one center, I study all the bacteria – all the microbes – that live in or on the human body, and how those play a role in health and disease,” Price says. “And, in the other group, I’m trying to quantify the human health impacts of feeding animals antibiotics.”

The latter research is currently a controversial topic, as the outcomes of his team’s research – aided by Paul Keim – demonstrated that the use of antibiotics in American livestock was leading to the rise of drug-resistant diseases that could transfer back to people. The story grabbed headlines across the country and was covered by several major newspapers and news outlets.

“Last year, we completed a study where we showed, very clearly using the advanced DNA-base techniques we use here, that staphylococcus aureus strains that started off in people jumped from people to livestock,” Price says. “And, in those livestock where we used a lot of antibiotics, it became Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). So, it went from plain, old, easily-treatable staph aureus to something that’s very difficult to treat. Then, it jumped back to people. We were able to show this.”

This discovery was only possible through the emerging field of genomic epidemiology, where Price and others use the genome of the disease to determine where it originated. This was the reason for a spiked interest in Keim’s anthrax research in 2001, when anthrax was sent through the mail to locations on the east coast.

“There are things that we’re doing here at Northern Arizona University and TGen that almost no one else is doing in the whole world,” Price says. “We’re really some of the leaders in what is known as genomic epidemiology – using bacterial, fungi, or viral genomics to trace their origins. If we have an outbreak of an infection, and we want to know where it came from, we use this process.”

Price says that although Northern Arizona University may not have the inherent reputation of some larger institutions, there is groundbreaking work being done here by himself, Keim, and others – including both undergraduate and graduate students.

“We’re doing globally-recognized, important research,” Price says. “We’re part of a small group of researchers around the world who are affecting policy and human lives. We were part of the team that identified the source of the cholera epidemic in Haiti.”

Price recently began teaching at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but he travels back to Flagstaff often to check up on TGen. He is proud of the work he did as an undergraduate, and he stresses that, with hard work, anyone can change the world.

“All students have the same capacity,” Price says. “I’m not super-smart, but I worked really hard and I made these relationships with my professors to the point where I could do research in their labs.  I went that extra mile and worked a little harder.”