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Rachel Zufferey, Ph.D.

Biologist Receives NIH Grant to Develop Parasite Vaccine

The disease leishmaniasis poses a major public health problem for developing countries in the tropics and subtropics. It usually presents as skin lesions, but can also affect the liver and spleen. The disease is caused by a parasite, Leishmania, which spreads to vertebrate animals (including humans) through the bites of certain sandflies. Health officials don’t currently have effective drugs to treat leishmaniasis, as the risks of most antiparasitic drugs on the market outweigh their benefits.

Rachel Zufferey, Ph.D., associate professor and graduate director of biological sciences, has received a $495,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Support of Competitive Research (SCORE) Program to fund research that may lead to the development of a leishmaniasis vaccine. The NIH awarded the grant to Zufferey in response to her proposed research, Fatty Alcohol Synthesis and Virulence in Leishmania. For the past 17 years, she has been working to understand how leishmania produces lipophosphoglycan because this factor allows the parasite to establish infection. Once Zufferey reaches a clearer understanding of how Leishmania operates in the human body, she can begin working on a vaccine.

“You have to hit the right margin” with the vaccine, says Zufferey. “The parasite has to be weak enough but also strong enough to stimulate the immune system, and we still don’t understand all of how the immune system works. Developing the vaccine is not that straightforward; if it were, we would have done it already.” Still, she says, this is the main goal of research because the need for such a vaccine in the developing world is so great.

The SCORE Program works to foster the development of faculty members at minority-serving institutions in order to increase their research competitiveness in biomedical and behavioral research and promote their transition to other sources of research funding. The grant will help to fund Zufferey’s laboratory operation, summer research, research assistants, and the need for specialized lipids analyses. According to Zufferey, “working with fat is very difficult because it doesn’t mix well with water,” and so she must send specimens to one of only two facilities in the country that perform lipid analysis.

The grant will also enhance the research environment within St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Ales Vancura, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, congratulated Zufferey on the award, adding: “Our students want to be involved in our research, and increasing scholarship and external funding will increase student engagement and satisfaction, and will contribute to the academic reputation of SJU.” Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Research Simon Geir Moller, Ph.D., said of Zufferey’s award, “The current NIH funding climate is extremely competitive and this accomplishment by Dr. Zufferey underlines her commitment to research and the integration of research into the learning experience of our students.”