Grant T. Fisher Professor and Chair of Microbiology & Immunology
Human African trypanosomiasis (commonly called Sleeping Sickness) is one of the global great neglected diseases, causing ~10,000 cases annually according to most recent estimates (2009). The related veterinary disease of livestock (Nagana) also has significant impact on human economic well being throughout sub-Saharan Africa wherever the insect vector (tsetse flies) are found. Both diseases are caused parasitic protozoa called trypanosomes (Trypanosoma brucei ssp.) Because trypanosomes are eukaryotic cells, organized similarly to every cell in our bodies, treatment of infection is not unlike cancer treatment in that chemotherapy against the parasite has harsh consequences for the patient. However, infection is invariably fatal without intervention, consequently new more specific drugs are desperately needed. In addition, because trypanosomes are an anciently divergent evolutionary lineage, they provide a unique model system for studying basic eukaryotic biology.
My laboratory focuses on the cell biology of these protozoa, specifically on intracellular trafficking of lysosomal and cell surface proteins as key aspects of the host:parasite relationship. The trypanosome lifecycle alternates between the mammalian bloodstream and the tsetse midgut, and each stage has a unique protein surface coat that forms the first line of contact with the host. These coat proteins are anchored in membranes by glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI) anchors and are essential for survival in each stage. Consequently, correct protein targeting to the cell surface is critical to the success of the parasite. Also, endocytic and lysosomal functions are greatly up-regulated in the pathogenic bloodstream stage for both nutritional and defensive purposes. Using classic and current cell biological and biochemical approaches we work on four distinct areas: 1) GPI-dependent targeting of surface coat proteins; 2) machinery of secretory trafficking; 3) stage-specific lysosomal biogenesis and proteomics; and 4) role of sphingolipids in secretory transport. Our ultimate goal is to define aspects of trypanosomal secretory processes that may provide novel avenues to chemotherapeutic intervention.