Summer Research Project Explores Anti-Protozoan Properties of Algae

Aug 2, 2016 / Research News

Powers toxoplasma research

While practicing as a livestock veterinarian in a rural setting in Zambia, Dr. William Witola quickly noticed that the medicine given to sheep infected with parasites was not working like it was supposed to.

A desire to learn more about these parasites led Dr. Witola to return to the University of Zambia for a master’s of science degree in veterinary biochemistry. Next his research interest took him to Japan, where he earned a PhD from Hokkaido University and a certificate in advanced protozoology from Obihiro University.

Parasitologist Dr. Witola

Dr. William Witola served as the mentor for veterinary student Jonathan Powers, who participated in the college’s Summer Research Training Program.

“The more I uncovered about the parasites, the more I needed to discover,” he explained.

Three postdoctoral fellowships later—at Hokkaido University, the University of Connecticut Medical Center, Farmington, and the University of Chicago Medical Center—Dr. Witola took a position as an assistant professor of parasitology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, arriving in Urbana in the fall of 2015. He studies protozoan and nematode parasites including Toxoplasma gondii, Cryptosporidium parvum, Plasmodium, and Haemonchus.

During his first summer in Urbana, Dr. Witola had the opportunity to pass along his knowledge about and passion for parasitic research to a second-year veterinary student named Jonathan Powers. Dr. Witola served as the mentor for Powers, who participated in the college’s Summer Research Training Program. Powers’ project looked at whether green algae extracts have potential to fight infections with the parasitic protozoa, Toxoplasma gondii. T. gondii is a zoonotic parasite, meaning it infects both humans and animals. It infects about one-third of the world’s people. Its animal hosts include cats as well as livestock, rodents, birds, and other small animals.

If pregnant women are infected with T. gondii, their babies may be born with eye and brain damage.

Unfortunately, current medications for human T. gondii infection are expensive and require taking 10 or more pills a day for several weeks. In addition, the drugs are only effective during one life stage of T. gondii, and they cause toxic side effects in people.

Powers worked to pursue Dr. Witola’s search for a treatment that could help the most vulnerable patients, infants and those who are immunocompromised.

“Algae has been shown to possess antibacterial and antifungal properties, but no studies had tested whether it could be effective against protozoa,” Powers said. “Our preliminary results were promising, so algae could have potential as an effective treatment for T. gondii.”

Dr. Witola praised Powers as “charismatic, enthusiastic” and “a quick study who only needed to be shown something once.”

In addition to pursing a treatment for T. gondii, Dr. Witola wants to develop a vaccine for it. This aspect of his research draws on molecular parasitology techniques to identify and inhibit specific proteins secreted by the parasite.

The ultimate goal of his work is to identify, characterize, and validate molecular targets for anti-parasite drug and vaccine development and to find genetic markers in host animals for resistance to parasitic infections.

Elizabeth Field