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April 4, 2013

Yale professor discusses life cycle of parasite protozoa

By James Ryan

Prof. Elisabetta Ullu lecture at Cleveland State

Dr. Elisabetta Ullu, professor of internal medicine and cell biology at Yale University, presented the new biology of Trypanosoma brucei, a one-celled parasite that causes sleeping sickness in humans and in animals, at Cleveland State on Friday, March 29.

Professor Ullu is a leader in Trypanosoma genetics and molecular biology, and has been recognized for her lab’s work with the protozoan parasite – Trypanosoma brucei, which causes African sleeping sickness.

African sleeping sickness is a potentially fatal parasitic disease that infects 500,000 people per year, and is a major public health concern in Sub-Saharan Africa. The disease is transmitted by the tsetse fly – a large, brown, biting fly that injects metacyclic trypomastigotes into the skin tissue during a blood meal with a mammalian host.

Professors and students who had come to hear Ullu speak were impressed by her talk and her research on this obligate parasite.

“She has screened the entire genome for different mRNA’s that are expressed during different times in the life cycle of the T. brucei, and in so doing one could identify specific targets for therapeutic intervention at any given stage in the life cycle of T. Brucei,” said Crystal M. Weyman, professor and chair within BGES. “So this was a very exciting talk, because it was unbiased. She didn’t specifically go in and look at gene A, gene B or gene C. She looked at the entire genome to see what was changing in the different stages.” Weyman added, “That’s state of the art science, and we were very lucky to have her come here.”

Ullu talked about how this obligate parasite causes disease inside the bloodstream of the host it infects and its life cycle across two hosts: humans and animals.

“There are no cures or vaccinations [for Trypanosoma brucei],” said Ullu. “Cows that are infected by t. brucei cannot be used for meat or for producing milk.”

She went on to criticize the people and agriculture companies who overlook this fact and sell the cows after injecting the cattle with a serum that’s far below adequate.

Ullu provided a vast amount of information regarding the parasite and its relationship to cells. Her lecture covered her published work and what she and other scientists are currently working on. She laid out what scientists know and why researchers such as her want to know all about Trypanosoma brucei.

“We study this parasite, Trypanosoma brucei, because it causes diseases,” said Ullu. “The hope is that eventually the more parasite specific functions we can identify, the more drug targets we will have available. To identify how Trypanosoma differentiates in the flies is important because it gives the possibility of intervening on the fly itself. Ullu added, “There are people who think it will be possible to generate vaccines against fly components or give the fly an anti-trypanosoma vaccine, but this is really controversial. There are ethical issues there.”

Dr. Bibo Li, associate professor in the BGES department at Cleveland State, who also studies Trypanosoma brucei was also present at the lecture.

“I work with Trypanosoma brucei, but in different stages,” said Li. “Because I don’t study the development particularly – her lecture showed me a lot about its morphology and development. This particular gene has a very important function.”

Dr. Ullu’s research is very important and the Center for Gene Regulation in Health and Disease was elated to have her come to Cleveland State’s campus and share her wealth of knowledge and research.

For more information about Elisabetta Ullu and her research visit http://bbs.yale.edu/people/elisabetta_ullu.profile.