Researchers are studying the chemical modifications of a parasite RNA in hopes of finding new treatments for African sleeping sickness.

Story by Gabrielle Ciraco

Kevin Militello, a professor of biology at Geneseo, has spent his career studying the genetics of infectious diseases. His current research is supported by a $460,000, three-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Militello and his team study the parasite that causes human African trypanosomiasis, or African sleeping sickness, which affects the central nervous system. The parasite is transmitted to humans through a tsetse fly bite. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), symptoms include fever, headaches, fatigue and later, behavioral and neurological changes that include sleep disorders and seizures. There are very few drugs to treat the disease, no vaccine, and if left untreated, it is fatal. 

“I started working on African sleeping sickness as a graduate student,” says Militello, who earned his Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Buffalo. “It’s endemic in sub-Saharan Africa, and to me, it’s interesting to study a non-U.S.-specific problem.”

Militello works on an emerging area of genetics that focuses on chemical modifications to RNA — single-stranded nucleic acids that carry genetic information. Militello’s team studies how specific chemical modifications impact the RNA of the T. brucei parasite that causes the disease. 

“It appears that some of the enzymes that make changes to RNA are essential for parasite growth,” says Militello. “This could mean that molecules that inhibit these enzymes will kill the parasite and thus represent new drugs for African sleeping sickness.” 

Militello has cataloged 36 chemical modifications for different types of RNA of the T. brucei organism throughout his career. Over the past few years, Militello and his team of undergraduate student researchers have even discovered several modifications in which the tools to study them don’t really exist yet, he says. 

“The enzymes that make the chemical modifications to the RNA seem to exist in other organisms, including humans,” says Militello. “So this research would likely be of interest to all geneticists.” 

Militello brought on three class of 2020 biochemistry majors last summer under the NIAID grant: Cassandra Taber, Will Schultz and Xiane Smith. 

Smith says success in research is about the minor victories. She has worked on purifying the CRMT4 protein, which is found in the T. brucei organism. Although it has been a tricky task, she’s finally finding some promising results trying alternative methods through Militello’s mentoring. 

“Working with the organism that causes African sleeping sickness is very significant,” said Taber. 

This spring, with Militello’s mentoring, Smith and the other students will present their independent data at the Experimental Biology conference in Orlando, Fla., in April 2019. The conference brings together life science and biomedical researchers from all over the world. 

Watch a video about the research: