NoroCORE: A Comprehensive Approach to a Near ‘Perfect’ Human Pathogen

Today’s guest blog features the USDA-NIFA Food Virology Collaborative (NoroCORE- Norovirus Collaborative for Outreach, Research, and Education), a food safety initiative with the ultimate goal to reduce the burden of foodborne disease associated with viruses, particularly noroviruses. Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States accounting for around 5 million of the 21 million annual cases associated with contaminated foods. Cost of illness is estimated to be billions of dollars per year.

Even if you have not experienced a norovirus infection personally (consider yourself fortunate!), you probably know someone who has or have heard of an outbreak of the “stomach flu.”  Most people know norovirus by its symptoms: a couple of memorable days of vomiting and diarrhea, sometimes with a fever and a headache.

These maladies are caused by 27-nanometer viruses—tiny, even by virus standards.  The norovirus “bugs” are so good at infecting us that they have been called the “Perfect Human Pathogen (link is external).”  It is so virulent that a person can become sick within a few hours of consuming as few as 20 virus particles.  There are about 21 million cases per year in the United States alone, with about 800 deaths.

The NoroCORE (link is external) team has taken up the challenge to understand and control food borne virus risks.  Led by North Carolina State, NoroCORE is a multi-disciplinary collaborative of 30 researchers who are top scientists in the fields of basic, food and environmental virology from 25 universities.  Their goal is to reduce the burden of foodborne illness associated with viruses.  NIFA supports the project with a $25 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant.

NoroCORE’s six primary objectives are molecular virology, detection, epidemiology and risk analysis; prevention and control; extension and outreach; and education and capacity building. Collaborators work with each other, often across institutions and disciplines, which leads to the development of better tools and skills as well as shared resources and knowledge.

NoroCORE also has a massive outreach component with input from more than 200 stakeholders that includes members of government and public health agencies, food production and safety groups, restaurant and cruise line industries, manufacturers of sanitation and hygiene products, testing laboratories, and a variety of commodity and trade organizations. This was an integral part of NoroCORE’s design to ensure that the research being done is immediately applicable to real-world needs. Education is also a component of NoroCORE because knowledge must be shared to be useful.

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

(Editor’s note: Dr. Mary K. Estes and her team at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas, have successfully cultured the human norovirus in intestinal cells. The article was published Aug. 25 in the journal Science (link is external)Additional information about this National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)-funded research is available from Baylor College of Medicine (link is external) and North Carolina State University (link is external). Norovirus is the world’s most common cause of diarrhea and the most common food-borne disease in the United States.  The discovery can lead to vaccines, therapeutics, and other measures to control the virus in humans and also affect management of norovirus transmission.  The following blog is the first in a series of articles that describe how researchers of the NIFA Food Virology Collaborative attacked the Norovirus and made this discovery.)

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