The Office of the Vice President for Research recognizes Zachary Mackey, an assistant professor of biochemistry with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for his work to derail the progress of disease-carrying parasites.
In a discovery published online last week in Cell Cycle, Mackey and colleagues suggested multiple ways to disrupt the genetic clockwork of parasite that is transmitted by the tsetse fly and causes sleeping sickness in people.
Scientists identified a protein, called proliferating cell nuclear antigen, or PCNA, that is vital to the sleeping sickness parasite’s good health. Disrupting this protein with drugs could potentially make it impossible for the parasite to reproduce and survive, reducing the health dangers to people.
Sleeping sickness is caused by invasion of the Trypanosoma brucei parasite into the host’s bloodstream. The native African tsetse fly transmits the parasite, and as it initially spreads through the body, it causes fever, headache, and intense aches and pains, according to the World Health Organization.
In 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, sleeping sickness infects hundreds of thousands of people each year and puts a stranglehold on the impoverished region’s economy.
Mackey, a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate and a researcher in the Vector-Borne Disease Research Group, says DNA metabolism pathways of the parasite are fascinating because they contain rapidly evolving genes with atypical biological and biochemical properties.
By understanding the molecular anatomy of essential genes that guard genomic integrity of the parasite, it is possible to construct a therapy against the infection. The bonus is the ideas and methods that Mackey is pursuing should be translatable to understanding and combating other parasitic diseases.
Mackey received his doctoral degree in molecular medicine from the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Nebraska.