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Reese receives infectious disease grant for parasite research

Burroughs Wellcome Fund award to further studies of Toxoplasma gondii, the world's most prevalent parasite

Michael Reese, Ph.D.

Of the more than 40 million people in the United States who carry the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, most never develop symptoms. But for those who do, including pregnant women and individuals with weakened immune systems, the effects can be devastating.

For his research on Toxoplasma, Michael Reese, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Biochemistry, has received the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award. The award provides $500,000 over five years to support investigators at the assistant professor level to shed light on how human and microbial systems are affected by their encounters.

Microscopic image of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii showing cytoskeleton structures in pink and green.

Since 1981, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund has funded modern molecular approaches to study and understand neglected diseases – such as tuberculosis, diarrheal diseases, and diseases transmitted by parasites – that primarily affect people in underdeveloped countries.

Dr. Reese, one of 10 investigators selected for an award from among 118 applicants, expressed gratitude for the funding.

“I look at everybody else who received this award before me and I am humbled,” he said. “Those are some big shoes to follow.”

The single-celled Toxoplasma parasite is very common, infecting 1 in 3 people worldwide. It is a medically important parasite to study because it is not only widespread but is related to the parasites that cause other serious diseases such as malaria and cryptosporidiosis, Dr. Reese said.

“I’d say it is the most successful parasite in the world,” he said. “If you have it, you have it forever, and while it’s not often that people have a problem with it, when they do it is devastating.”

The parasite causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that can lead to blindness and seizures. The parasite is commonly transmitted through consumption of undercooked infected meat or through contact with infected cat feces. The infection resolves on its own in healthy people, but someone with a weakened immune system requires treatment with pyrimethamine.

“It really is the only drug that treats it,” Dr. Reese said. “There needs to be more.”

The goal of Dr. Reese's research is to understand how properties of individual Toxoplasma molecules enable the parasite to respond to its environment and even to rewire its host cells, changing the cell’s metabolism to suit its needs. By viewing these molecules through an evolutionary lens, Dr. Reese’s goal is to understand how these signaling molecules are wired together with the hope of revealing new therapeutic targets. In addition, because genetic variation in these molecules can lead to wildly different disease outcomes, his work might help us understand why some people avoid serious disease from a given infection while others are not so lucky, he said.

Dr. Reese’s work on the signaling complexes that drive pathogenesis of Toxoplasma gondii is certain to impact the study of these pervasive parasites and contribute to the broader understanding of related parasites that cause malaria and cryptosporidiosis, said David Mangelsdorf, Ph.D., Chair of Pharmacology.

“Michael has that rare combination of intellectual and scientific talent that leads to breakthroughs – perfect for Burroughs Wellcome funding,” Dr. Mangelsdorf said. “His work on understanding a fundamental signaling pathway in toxoplasmosis is a great example that may very well lead to a novel therapeutic strategy to conquer one of the world’s most ubiquitous parasitic diseases.”

“My work combines cell biology, pharmacology, evolution, and parasitology and touches on immunology,” Dr. Reese said of his multidisciplinary research. “There’s no department I don’t talk to regularly.”

His laboratory uses techniques across multiple disciplines: from classical and molecular genetics and cell biology to biophysics and structural biology. This allows the examination of problems at many levels, from the atomic order structures of protein-protein complexes to the analysis of the signatures of evolutionary competition written in the genomes of the parasite and its hosts.

Dr. Reese, who joined UTSW in 2013, earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University in 1998. He then spent two years teaching high school science to gifted students with learning disabilities. He received a Ph.D. in biophysics in 2006 from the University of California, San Francisco.

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