Biologist Receives Renewal of NIH Grant to Investigate ‘Sleeping Sickness’

Kevin Militello, associate professor of biology,discusses project details in his lab with Erika Valentine, a junior biochemistry major from Hastings, N.Y. She is one of several undergraduate researchers supported by renewal of his NIH grant to continue work on identifying genetic functions in the parasite that causes “sleeping sickness.”

GENESEO, N.Y. -- SUNY Geneseo biology researcher Kevin Militello is homing in on a DNA component in a parasite that causes human African trypanosomiasis, also known as "sleeping sickness," and has received renewal of a National Institutes of Health grant to continue the investigation.

Militello, associate professor of biology at Geneseo, received the $387,768 award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which covers a three-year period and provides summer support for three undergraduate research assistants, support for a part-time research technician, supplies, and travel to professional meetings.

In his initial work, Militello and the student researchers working with him discovered the modified DNA base 5-methylcytosine in the parasite, Trypanosoma bruccei, which is typically transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly. They are trying to determine the genetic function of the molecule, which could lead to alterations in expression of a protein coating in the parasite that seems to protect the organism against destruction. The disease occurs only in 36 sub-Saharan African countries and if untreated, can be fatal.

"The key to this work is to identify the presence of new DNA bases in this organism and to elucidate the roles they play in different biological processes," said Militello. "The group of students working on this research are receiving invaluable laboratory inexperience on a project that can make a real difference in understanding this infectious disease."

The grant includes funds for sub-awards for two additional researchers: Jeffrey Miecznikowski, assistant professor of biostatistics and director of the Statistical Genetics and Genomics Resource at SUNY Buffalo and assistant professor of oncology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and Dan Wang, a biostatistician at Roswell Park, who will work with Miecznikowski in the statistical analysis related to microarray experiments.

Laurie Read, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine, also will provide expertise for the sections of the project involving manipulations of the parasite's genome.

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