Biology professor Marc-Jan Gubbels was recently awarded a four-year, $720,000 grant from the American Cancer Society (ACS)-but his research isn’t on cancer.
Gubbels and his team are investigating Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that has already infected 20 percent of Americans. In healthy individuals, infection by the parasite has little effect. But when cancer patients undergo chemotherapy and other immunosuppressive treatments, their bodies become prone to opportunistic infections that healthy individuals would otherwise be able to fight off.
“[Patients] can become immunosuppressed because of cancer treatment, for example through chemotherapies or bone marrow transplants for leukemia, and then Toxoplasma can become a big problem area,” Gubbels said.
Toxoplasma is an extremely common parasite-it is carried by almost all warm-blooded animals, particularly cats. It can be spread through ingesting undercooked meat, which can lead to a full blown infection. While Toxoplasma amounts to little more than flu-like symptoms, at worst, in healthy patients, the effects of Toxoplasma on immunosuppressed patients can range from encephalitis to complications with the heart.
Gubbels and his team have focused their research efforts on two main areas-first, they are investigating how the parasite enters the cells of the human body. The second area focuses on how the parasite divides, both unique processes that are conserved across many species.
“The two interests that we pursue are conserved biological events, in not only Toxoplasma but other similar parasites, so whatever we discover in Toxo will hopefully carry over to others,” Gubbels said.
Gubbels’ team will investigate both of these events by taking normal strains of Toxoplasma and creating mutations in specific genes. Then, by testing how the mutations affect the parasite’s function in terms of cell entry and division, the researchers will be able to determine if those genes, and the enzymes they encode, play a role in each process.
While there are currently drugs that can help control the effects of Toxoplasma gondii infection in immunosuppressed patients, many have unwanted side effects and can inhibit cancer treatments delivered simultaneously.
In the end, the goal of Gubbels’ research is to develop therapies that prevent Toxoplasma gondii infections from spreading.
“If we can understand how [the parasite] works once it’s in the cell, then we can design strategies to interfere with it, which is the long term goal,” Gubbels said.
Gubbels was quick to note, however, that the research is still in early stages-it is important to understand the processes of invasion and division, he said, before being able to target the parasite with drugs directly.
Gubbels, originally from the Netherlands, has taught both undergraduate and graduate level courses since he arrived at Boston College seven years ago, in addition to heading his research group. He first applied for the grant in the fall of 2010, but it took another try in 2011 for his proposal to win over the ACS. Tom Chiles, chair of the biology department, lauded Gubbels’ accomplishments, calling the award “well-deserved,” and saying that Gubbels’ research is “targeting an unmet need.”
“These are very competitive grants, and so when an investigator like [Gubbels] is awarded one of these grants it’s very significant, because there’s not a lot of money right now,” Chiles said. “Funding for federal research has been cut significantly and even money from private foundations has slowed recently.”
Research in the natural sciences at BC is funded almost exclusively by federal grants from organizations like the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as grants from private institutions like the ACS. In light of this, Chiles said that the award was even more important, as it will ensure that the research can continue and that undergraduate and graduate students will be able to continue to participate in laboratory work.
“[The award] says a lot to [Gubbels] as a very creative and innovative thinking scientist, it says a lot about the American Cancer Society and the faith they have in him and his research program, and a lot about how the research is going to support them and their overall mission,” Chiles said.