Newswise — California State University, Fullerton graduate student Noopur Dave is often asked why she studies the parasite “Trypanosoma cruzi,” which causes an infection called Chagas disease.
“The threat of this infectious disease is here in the United States,” Dave replies. “It’s important to study this parasite in order to pinpoint a potential drug therapy because currently, there is no FDA-approved drug to cure Chagas.”
Chagas disease, spread by insects called triatomine bugs or “kissing bugs,” was once endemic only in Latin America, but today, it is spreading to the U.S. and Europe, said Dave’s faculty mentor, Veronica Jimenez, assistant professor of biological science.
“Its spread is raising concerns regarding its globalization and epidemiological importance,” Jimenez said.
With more than 300,000 cases recorded in the U.S., it is considered a preventable infection, yet it can cause heart diseases and has been associated with increased risk of stroke, Jimenez explained.
Due to the lack of research on such tropical diseases, Chagas disease is one of five parasitic diseases targeted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public health action.
To advance her faculty-student investigation on Chagas disease, Jimenez has received multiple grants, totaling more than $1 million. Most recently, she has been awarded more than $550,000, including a $400,000, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The American Heart Association has awarded her $154,000 over two years, including first-year funding of $77,000.
Fullerton resident Dave, whose master’s thesis is based on her research, is among eight graduate and undergraduate students working with Jimenez to find treatment options for this parasitic infection.
“I strongly believe in empowering women and minorities to actively participate in science. Research gets more creative and productive when we incorporate different points of view and think outside the box,” Jimenez said. “Bringing people from different backgrounds is a great way of making better science, while providing opportunities for growth in our communities.”
The researchers are investigating how the parasite is able to sense changes in its environment, successfully adapting to them and infecting human hosts. The main limitation for the control of Chagas disease is the lack of effective and safe drugs, noted Jimenez.
“Our studies could contribute to the identification of selective drug targets that lead to the elimination of the parasite without negatively affecting humans,” she added.
Their work also could be used to better understand vector-borne diseases like Zika, West Nile viruses and Lyme disease.
Dave completed her B.S. in biological science in 2013 at Cal State Fullerton. She has won accolades for her research, including the Don Eden Graduate Research Award from the CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology. After she completes the master’s degree program in biology this summer, she will begin doctoral studies in biomedical sciences at Indiana University School of Medicine, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She plans to pursue a career in academia, teaching and studying infectious diseases.
“By working in Dr. Jimenez’s lab, I have gained a tremendous repertoire of skills relating to basic molecular and cell biology techniques,” she said. “Dr. Jimenez taught me how to be a good researcher and, overall, has been a great role model.”
Jimenez earned her doctorate in biomedical sciences at the University of Chile. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and master’s degrees in pharmacy and biochemistry from the University Juan Agustin Maza in Argentina. She conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Georgia’s Department of Cellular Biology and Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.