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Eastern biologists research toxic parasite with NIH grant

As many as 30 percent of Americans today carry the parasite Taxoplasma gondii, one of the leading causes of death for those with AIDS. New light is being cast on the widespread condition by an Eastern professor, thanks in part to a grant of $107,000 from the National Institute of Health.

After receiving an extension on the use of her grant, biology professor Dr. Maria Fichera has continued her research with seniors Marge Ayana and Aina Heino on the parasite.

Taxoplasma gondii, which is related to malaria, can be picked up unaware from raw meats or pets. The parasite is only dangerous to those with weak immune systems, including pregnant women.

As principle advisor of this research, Fichera said the research has progressed slowly since 2001. Fichera and the student researchers have found that this particular parasite is sensitive to herbicides often found in weed killers.

They are now studying the DNA of the parasite by examining any DNA changes in parasites that are resistant to the drug compared with those parasites that are normal.

“How we do this is a lot like tissue culturing, except it’s called cell culturing,” Fichera said.

“We take a parasite and place it within a lab cultured cell and then observe not only how the parasite affects the cell, but what specific course of action the parasite takes. We do this to discover and understand the biology of the parasite.”

The research also consists of understanding ways the parasite could survive when encountering the herbicide drug. Heino and Ayana are currently creating parasites resistant to herbicide drugs.

They will proceed to study the DNA of the cultured cell that hosts the parasite to see if any mutation in the parasite allows it to survive.

“It’s a fun and worthwhile experience because you learn so much more in the lab than you do sitting in the classroom,” Ayana said.

Fichera, Heino and Ayana all believe this mutation occurs in the tubulin genes, which are the parts of the cells that cause division. They believe the mutation occurs there because division would lend an extra hand to the parasites’ survival.

Fichera said the purpose of this research reflects the entire medical field’s priority in creating the best drug for the case in need. The best drug is based on a pure understanding of its biology and not its least side effects.The basis of the research is to fully understand the system by which the herbicides kill off parasites in cultured cells.

Eventually, Fichera aims to send her findings to medical companies throughout the country. She hopes medical companies will then adapt her findings to a drug that can conquer the parasite safely and effectively in animal cells.

Fichera has planned to take Heino and Ayana to the Pennsylvania Institute of Science in Camp Hill this April. Heino said that they will make a poster to illustrate where they think parasite mutation is occurring within cultured cells.

“We are researching a parasite that only picks on those with weaker immune systems,” Fichera said. “We aren’t studying a bug of epidemic proportions.

But what we are doing is the norm in science, whereby you always try to use other systems that work and apply them to cases that don’t have a good enough medicine.”

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