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Gubbels Awarded March of Dimes Research Funding 

january 28, 2009

Marc-Jan Gubbels, Assist. Professor of Biology, awarded a March of Dimes research funding under the BASIL O'CONNOR STARTER SCHOLAR RESEARCH AWARD program (read more on this program here). This is a grant for two years (with $75,000 per year) starting in February 2009.

Millions of people are at risk for infection by the widespread protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, and one out of five Americans is already infected. In the U.S., 15% of women of childbearing age show serological evidence of T. gondii infection. A primary infection during pregnancy is especially risky since the parasite can cross the placenta and infect the developing fetus. Such congenital toxoplasmosis is associated with a variety of birth defects including spontaneous abortion, mental retardation, hydrocephalus, epilepsy or blindness, several of which manifest in childhood. Approximately 400 - 4,000 cases of congenital toxoplasmosis occur in the U.S. per year. Drug treatment of pregnant women does not significantly reduce transmission rates to the fetus, though it does reduce damage to the fetus. Moreover, prophylactic treatment can cause toxicity and hypersensitivity in patients and therefore, more specific drugs are needed. Fetal damage is caused by repetitive cycles of parasite invasion, replication and host cell lysis, causing tissue damage in the process. Hence inhibition of parasite replication by (novel) drugs would significantly reduce the severity of birth defects associated with congenital toxoplasmosis. Cell division in the parasite significantly deviates from cell division in higher eukaryotes (e.g. humans). This insight has two implications: 1) drugs affecting parasite replication are unlikely to have adverse side effects; and 2) at the molecular level parasite division shares limited factors with the well-studied higher eukaryotic model organisms. Therefore we embarked on an unbiased, genetic approach to identify genes essential for parasite division. In collaboration, a pool of division mutants has been generated and preliminarily characterized. This proposal aims to dissect two key mutants in detail to identify unique mechanisms and molecules in the parasite’s cell division.


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