UMD Students Make Headway on Chagas Disease Research

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UMD students in research lab
Undergraduate students Murat Kalem (left) and Rebecca Madden (right) in research lab.

Imagine what it would be like to help discover a cure for a disease that each year kills 10,000 individuals, and puts more than 25 million at risk of infection. UMD undergraduate students Rebecca Madden and Murat Kalem spent the summer of 2015 doing just that.

Students on a mission
Rebecca and Murat are part of the UMD Biology Department’s BURST program, a 10-week research opportunity that provides undergrads with a stipend and exposure to full-time research.  

Rebecca said, “We are researching Chagas disease which is caused by a parasite that lives in kissing bugs, known as Trypanosoma cruzi.” The students are analyzing the parasite’s life stages, in hopes of determining its survival needs. Murat explained, “In order to complete its life cycle, the parasite needs to encounter and adapt to three different environments: the insect host, the bloodstream, and human cells.”

They aren't really researching for a drug, instead they are looking for a vulnerability in the unique ways the parasite expresses its genes. Rebecca said, “Before solving a puzzle, you first need all the pieces. We are trying to solve a small piece of the puzzle in hopes that it will contribute to a cure.”

Why Chagas Disease?
The kissing bug that carries T. cruzi is found in Mexico and Central and South America. However, the probable northward expansion of habitat for the insect, potential contamination of blood and organ donations, and the mobility of people in the 21st Century, make Chagas disease increasingly a U.S. concern as well.

The parasite enters a human when its host, most often the kissing bug, breaks the skin with a bite. Some people have symptoms such as a fever and swelling, and others don't. After a few weeks, the parasite enters an intermediate stage which can last for 10-40 years, often leaving the individual without symptoms. In the chronic stage, it affects 20-30 percent of the infected people with cardiac problems and cardiac-related death.

The gap in research
Other scholars are also researching Chagas disease, but there is much work to be done. Sara Zimmer, the advisor on the project and assistant professor in biomedical sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth said the research could lead to progress in combating this disease.

Rebecca and Murat's study takes into consideration the fact that T. cruzi must change its gene expression as it goes through its multiple life stages in its insect and human host. As they study the mechanisms the parasite uses to control how and when genes are expressed, their work may help identify unique drugs to target specific characteristics of these cellular regulatory pathways.

Currently only two anti-parasitic treatment drugs are available. They have serious side effects and they are less effective at the later stage of infection.

Rebecca said, “One day we hope to create an effective treatment for the later stages of the disease, but first we need to learn how the parasite adapts for continued survival throughout the three environments.”

An appetite for research
Rebecca and Murat differ from the majority of undergraduate students who realize their interest for research during college. They both came to UMD knowing they had a hunger for research. Murat, who comes from Istanbul, Turkey, explained, “I always knew I wanted to be a scientist and work in a lab. However, unlike most schools I applied to, UMD was unique because it's medical school supplied the opportunity to conduct research on human disease.”

Rebecca also came to UMD with the hope of participating in research. She said, “I knew UMD offered students many research avenues. Although larger colleges offered similar options, they are often very competitive.”

Project generates future opportunity
While recognition often goes to those who find the cure, those who do the tedious back-end work are equally important. And in Murat and Rebecca's case, they learned a lot along the way.

Rebecca and Murat plan to continue their future in research. Murat said, “The project reaffirmed my passion for lab research, especially with human diseases. Overall the project will help me maintain a competitive edge when I’m applying to graduate programs.”

As for Rebecca, the project was a stepping-stone to help achieve her goals. “I knew research was my calling, but I had to get exposure and experience on my path to becoming a full-time researcher one day.”

Visit BURST for more information or to support student researchers in the BURST program.

For info about SCSE see Swenson College of Science & Engineering Website.

Written by Elise Viger, August 2015.

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