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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 00 > Article

Bug Zappers
by Paul Karr

Researchers at the UGA Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases study a host of parasite-borne diseases — some well known, some you’ve probably never heard of, but all a threat to global health.

Julie Moore, who joined the team last year as an assistant professor of medical microbiology and parasitology, deals with one of the most challenging and pernicious: malaria, which occurs in high incidence in sub-Saharan Africa and other lesser-developed nations. She spends up to four months each year in Kenya, India and other affected areas trying to understand the complexities of the disease.

Spread by mosquitoes, malaria is an especially tricky infection: It can take many different forms, depending on the region of the globe and the quantity of infection. Worldwide, it kills about 3 million people a year — 90 percent of them African — and afflicts many more. The mosquitoes that carry the disease were nearly eradicated during the 1960s by DDT spraying programs, but now they have rebounded stronger than ever. Yet it is only beginning to capture research attention and funding.

“Four babies die from malaria each minute, yet there is no vaccine for it,” Moore said. “That’s true for a very simple reason: People in the United States rarely get malaria, and so the research money goes toward other diseases.”

Moore studies successful immune responses to the disease, reasoning that an understanding of what responses work well will be critical to the later development of a vaccine.

Also on the center’s hit list are:

  • African sleeping sickness: Often fatal, this disease takes two forms that are passed on by the bite of the tsetse fly as it feeds on human or animal blood. The first form is exceptionally painful and often kills its victims within several weeks; the other causes an infection and slower decline lasting several years — but it is also often fatal. Associate cellular biology professor Kojo Mensa-Wilmot is probing the biology of the two Trypansoma brucei parasites that cause the disease in the hope that it will lead to a vaccine or other preventative measures.
  • Insect saliva: To combat diseases, researchers are learning how insects transmit them in the first place. Donald Champagne, an assistant entomology professor, studies the polypeptides in insect saliva and the ways in which those substances alter the blood of an infected human or animal host so that the parasite can be transmitted. Some insects inject an anticoagulant and an immunosupressant that alter and affect the host’s response to parasites, which means the insect is actually “helping” the parasite create infection. Eventually, work like Champagne’s may help scientists develop defenses to infectious bites.
  • Schistosomiasis: Cellular biologist Raymond Damian has studied a range of problems relating to this disease of the intestinal and urinary tracts. Schistosomiasis affects more than 200 million people in Africa, South America, and the Middle and Far East, not to mention millions of livestock.
  • Toxoplasma gondii: This parasite is mainly transmitted through cat feces and causes toxoplasmosis, which is why pregnant women should avoid exposure to cat litter during their first trimester. To learn how the infection spreads, assistant cellular biology professor Boris Striepen applies substances to pathogenic cells, then uses dyes and time-lapse video microscopy to document the infection process in slow-motion detail.

For more information about the CTEGD, access http://www.uga.edu/ctegd/.


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