Many scientists and physicians have a personal stake in their field of study. Driven to understand a disease that affects a family member or inspired by a special bond formed with a patient, their work goes beyond professional ambition or intellectual curiosity. It has the potential to affect the lives of people they care about.
Kamal El Bissati, PhD, is a microbiologist at the University of Chicago who studies how parasites that cause diseases interact with their hosts. He chose to focus on toxoplasmosis, one of the world’s most common diseases, because it has a huge impact on children in his native country of Morocco.
Toxoplasmosis is caused by the protozoan Toxoplasmosis gondii, carried primarily by cats. Humans are typically infected in one of three ways: a newly infected pregnant woman passing the infection to her fetus (known as congenital toxoplasmosis); consumption of undercooked, infected meat; and ingestion of T. gondii oocysts in food, through accidental contamination from cat litter or soil. It can cause flu-like symptoms, but in severe cases can cause vision loss, brain damage and even death.
Up to a third of the world’s population carry the parasite, and one study of pregnant women living in Rabat, Morocco, found that half of them tested positive. Despite its widespread prevalence however, there is no vaccine or consistently effective drug to treat the disease.
El Bissati is working to fix that. He is studying the biology and host interactions of both T. gondii and Plasmodium falciparum, a related parasite that causes another disease that famously has no vaccine: malaria. El Bissati actually has a patent involving the use of attenuated strains in malaria vaccination, and he’s looking to do the same for toxoplasmosis. By analyzing the molecular pathways the parasites use to infect hosts, he hopes to develop new vaccines that target these mechanisms, or use live attenuated strains of the parasite to trigger a protective immune response.
El Bissati has been at the University of Chicago for almost 3 years, working with Rima McLeod, MD, one of the world’s leading experts on toxoplasmosis. She is the lead investigator of a large study cohort of patients with congenital toxoplasmosis in the United States. He said that working in an academic medical setting, side-by-side with both researchers and clinicians like McLeod who treat patients affected by the disease helps round out his understanding of it.
“We have clinical work and basic research, and that for me is a big help,” he said. “I’m glad that I’m here because that part can complete my understanding of how to use a vaccine or other drugs to kill the parasite.”
The Knights Templar Eye Foundation, a charitable arm of the Masonic organization that focuses on funding research to treat eye diseases, recently awarded El Bissati a $60,000 grant to continue his work on a toxoplasmosis vaccine. Besides the financial backing for his budding research career, he said the grant gives him an opportunity to focus his work on a molecular switch that he recently identified in T. gondii. The switch, which is called a riboswitch, controls enzyme production crucial to the survival of the parasite. He hopes to create a vaccine that can kill the parasite, by creating an analog for this riboswitch that can be used to block the function of two key enzymes.
“I am confident we will have something that is new, novel, and something that can be useful for all related parasites,” he said.
Meanwhile, El Bissati is working to bring this knowledge about toxoplasmosis back to his native country. He recently returned from Morocco, where he helped establish a consortium with the University of Rabat that will develop more effective screening programs, research the genetics of different strains of the parasite in that country and facilitate an exchange of medical students interested in global health and infectious disease.
He is also working to improve opportunities for international and minority researchers working in the United States, and recently received the NIH PRIDE award for his work developing programs to increase diversity among individuals engaged in health-related research.
“This is something I feel proud of, coming from Morocco,” he said. “We are trying to make the research I am doing here not just at the bench, but translated to a global health program.”