This fall, Harvey Mudd College biology professor Danae Schulz will join a multidisciplinary group of early-career researchers to address the global threat to human health from animal-borne infectious diseases.
The Mitigating Zoonotic Threats conference—sponsored by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—is the first meeting of a new, three-year initiative that tasks researchers with augmenting their understanding of the interactions between animals, people, pathogens and their environments. The goal of the meeting—a Scialog (short for science + dialog)—is to develop new ways of rapidly detecting emerging pathogens and quickly developing and deploying new countermeasures.
Schulz is one of 54 multidisciplinary early-career researchers selected by RCSA for the Scialog. Each research fellow was asked to submit ideas for conference discussion topics, including ideas for far-out, high-risk, high-impact projects. Guided by a group of senior facilitators, participants will discuss challenges and gaps in current knowledge, build community around visionary goals and form teams to propose cutting-edge, collaborative research projects. Those projects considered to have the potential for high-impact results will be selected to receive seed funding for research that will continue during the 2021–2022 academic year.
For the Scialog conference, Schulz, an assistant professor of biology at HMC since 2016, submitted ideas related to her research on the African trypanosome, a protozoan parasite that causes sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in cattle. Trypanosomes are transmitted to the bloodstream of a mammal through the bite of a tsetse fly, eventually leading to coma and death. She seeks to understand what allows trypanosomes to reprogram themselves to adapt as they move between the differing environments of the fly midgut and the mammalian bloodstream, with an eye toward trying to manipulate these adaptations to generate new therapies.
One “high-impact” project she submitted for potential funding is “capitalizing on native host resistance mechanisms to create resistance to parasites in hosts that are generally susceptible.”
“Jayne Raper’s group had the idea to do this in African trypanosomes, and I think it could be really effective,” Schulz says. Humans are resistant to cow strains of African trypanosomes through the expression of ApoLI. Raper’s idea was that if ApoLI could be expressed or delivered to cows, this might help mitigate infections with cow-specific strains of trypanosomes. “There might be other examples in other parasite systems that could be explored.”
Schulz says, “If we could introduce genes involved in parasite resistance that have evolved in some animals to animals that are susceptible to those same parasites, that would be a powerful way to eliminate parasite infections. With the advent of CRISPR, which makes genetic modification easier, and CRISPR’s ability to be used as a gene drive, which can drive the resistance modification through a population, I think we are poised to be able to do this kind of thing with new technology that didn’t exist even 15 years ago.”
The Mitigating Zoonotic Threats conference is scheduled for Sept. 30–Oct. 3 in Tucson, Arizona.