Exploring Parasite Biology
by Alex Richardson
After swimming in contaminated water in Cumberland County, North Carolina, a man died from contracting a rare brain-eating parasite, Naegleria fowleri. With a mortality rate of 97%, it is crucial that more effective treatments are developed to fight this infection. The Exploring Nutrient Sensing in Protozoan Parasites Creative Inquiry project mentored by Dr. James Morris in the Department of Genetics and Biochemistry is investigating potential treatments for N. fowleri and other deadly parasitic organisms.
The team studies the metabolic pathways of multiple parasites including N. fowleri and Trypanosoma brucei. They hope to develop novel treatments for these deadly infections by targeting the p
arasites’ metabolic biology. Sarah Grace McAlpine, a senior biological sciences major, is working to develop fundamental research techniques needed to understand the basic biology of N. fowleri. This research will potentially advance the development of more effective therapies. “The current treatment for Naegleria is a seven-drug cocktail, and we really don’t know what each drug does in the body,” McAlpine said. Jillian Milanes, a graduate student in the Department of Genetics and Biochemistry, and McAlpine have successfully produced green fluorescent N. fowleri. Their goal is to establish parasites that permanently express the fluorescent protein so that Morris’ collaborators can infect mice and follow the parasites as they interact with immune cells in the animal.
Trypanosoma brucei, the parasite responsible for African sleeping sickness, threatens millions of people from communities in sub-Saharan Africa. If left untreated, the disease infects the central nervous system, causing eventual coma and death. Due to this, developing a better understanding of T. brucei’s biology is needed to develop more effective treatments. In addition, it can act as a model for its cousin T. cruzi. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that more than 300,000 people in the United States live with T. cruzi infections, which often lead to lethal diseases later in life, such as heart abnormalities.
To better understand the biology of T. brucei, Emily Plumb, a junior biochemistry major, and Jess Jones, a graduate student in the Morris lab, are working to identify the components of T. brucei’s glucose-sensing pathway. This biochemical pathway allows T. brucei to sense glucose levels in its environment and respond to changes. Morris believes that exploiting this ability could lead to more effective therapies.
While discovering new drug targets is an important aspect of developing new treatments, researchers must also figure out how to get the drugs into parasite cells. As part of her honors thesis, Emma Johnson, a senior biochemistry major, is testing the uptake of compounds decorated with structures that the team has found improve uptake. Once she determines the molecule with the greatest uptake, it will be used to modify drugs to improve delivery into Trypanosoma.
Approximately 32 million people worldwide are infected with members of the protozoan genus Trypanosoma. Along with N. fowleri’s 97% mortality rate, it is vital that better treatments for these infections are developed. By studying these parasites, this Creative Inquiry team is contributing to projects that not only add to the understanding of the natural world but potentially impact the lives of millions.
Barbara J. Speziale