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Category: CTEGD Blog

Cassera named summer 2021 Innovation Fellow

M. Belen Cassera
Belen Cassera (Submitted photo)

Associate professor Belen Cassera is one step closer to introducing her research to the marketplace. Having spent the summer as UGA’s newest Innovation Fellow, Cassera has learned a lot about how to bring parasitic disease therapeutics arising from her research to market.

“In fall 2019, I was among the 18 chosen women from UGA who participated in the inaugural Innovation Bootcamp, where we learned about the Innovation Fellow program, among several other opportunities designed to guide faculty seeking to commercialize their discoveries,” said Cassera, an associate professor in biochemistry and molecular biology and member of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. “The bootcamp was the ‘switch on’ I needed to refocus my research, and being chosen as an Innovation Fellow is the ‘takeoff’ of this new journey for me.”

Cassera’s research focuses primarily on the discovery and development of novel anti-parasitic drugs, aiming to understand how therapeutics work at the biochemical and cellular levels. A month into her fellowship, Cassera is already gaining new insight into the commercialization process and how it can inform her approach to research.

“I have experienced a great transformation in my research goals,” she said. “In every aspect that we have addressed, I see a translation back to my lab—everything is connected. For instance, I now understand how to utilize knowledge and resources that we already have to expand and grow into other areas that will bring in more funding, new knowledge and potentially new products.”

Launched in 2019 as part of UGA’s Innovation District initiative, the Innovation Fellows program encourages faculty and staff to pursue commercialization and development of their research through Innovation Gateway. Fellows are trained in how to successfully translate their research projects into a marketable products, receive mentorship from a fellow faculty and/or industry partner, and receive up $10,000 to support their activities.

“Belen is a very technical person with a very precise end goal in mind,” said Ian Biggs, director of programming for the Innovation District and director of Innovation Gateway’s startup program. “The goal of the Gateway team is to provide her with the tools, expertise and guidance she needs to turn her vision into a commercialized reality.”

Thanks to the Innovation Fellows program, the future is not only bright for Cassera’s research, but also for the rest of her academic career as well.

“The insights and knowledge I’ve gained from this fellowship will help me substantially improve my teaching, training and mentoring of students pursuing their careers in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries,” she said.

Applications for the 2021 fall cohort are now open. The deadline to apply is Aug. 15.


This story first appeared at UGA Today

Ph.D. candidate Ale Villegas and advisor Vasant Muralidharan receive Gilliam Graduate Fellowship Award

Ale Villegas and Vasant Muralidharan
PhD Candidate Ale Villegas and Advisor Dr. Vasant Muralidharan (Photo Courtesy of Vasant Muralidharan)

Malaria’s connection to Georgia goes back to the colonial period. The Southeastern United States provided prime conditions for a thriving mosquito population which ensured the spread of the disease. The state capital moved from Louisville to Milledgeville in 1806 in part because of malaria outbreaks among the state’s General Assembly.

Later, the federal Office of Malaria Control in War Areas was established in Atlanta instead of Washington D.C. because of its proximity to malaria. The center was succeeded in 1946 by the Communicable Disease Center which is now the Centers for Disease Control. While Malaria was mostly eliminated in the U.S. by 1951, it still impacts millions of people around the globe. Cue Ale Villegas, a doctoral candidate in Cellular Biology.

Villegas and her advisor, Dr. Vasant Muralidharan, were recently awarded a Gilliam Graduate Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The goal of the fellowship is to increase the diversity among scientists who are prepared to assume leadership roles in science. The program selects pairs of students and their dissertation advisers based on their scientific leadership and commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

Villegas’s research is on the edge of the unknown. She works with Muralidharan in UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases where they aim to understand the parasite that causes malaria.

“I’m exploring the mechanisms by which malaria parasites develop in human red blood cells,” said Villegas. “I am studying Plasmodium falciparum, the most common and deadly species that infects humans. These studies can inform therapeutic treatments in the future.”


PhD trainee Ale Villegas
PhD Candidate Ale Villegas. Villegas is in the cellular biology department. (Photo Courtesy of Ale Villegas)

Villegas specifically studies a malaria parasite glycosyltransferase or an enzyme that adds sugar molecules to other biomolecules. These enzymes may be needed by the parasite to survive and resist the immune response. There are few experts or studies in this area, but Villegas saw beyond those challenges to the critical importance of understanding malaria immune response.

“She is a very talented young scientist who has undertaken a challenging and high-impact research project,” said Muralidharan. “Her initial work was fraught with technical difficulties and setbacks, most of which are attributable to the difficulties in working with the hard-to-study malaria parasite. I am very impressed by her toughness and intellectual capacity as she solved one technical issue after another. She is now poised to move the field forward in a meaningful way.”

Villegas has also worked with Dr. Robert Haltiwanger and his graduate students in the Complex-Carbohydrate Research Center at UGA to advance her research. Haltiwanger is a leading expert on fringe-like glycosyltransferases like the enzyme she studies.

“Having Dr. Haltiwanger on campus is amazingly lucky,” said Villegas. “He and his graduate students go above and beyond when I need help or need to try out experiments. I’m glad to have access to his knowledge, experienced grad students, and sometimes his reagents!”

“What these parasite-derived sugar modifications are and how they form could inform a better vaccine or other drug therapies for malaria,” said Villegas.

Rings of P. falciparum in a thick blood smear. (Photo Courtesy of CDC)
Rings of P. falciparum in a thick blood smear. (Photo Courtesy of CDC)

Malaria still kills around 450,000 people each year. Most of these victims are children under the age of five. There are no effective vaccines and the parasite has gained resistance to all antimalarials currently in clinical use. Villegas’ research on this parasite sugar-adding enzyme could have important implications for future treatments and vaccine development.

The Gilliam Fellowship allows Villegas to pursue other passions in addition to science. She is a leader in student advocacy and devoted to helping students gain access to resources to advocate for themselves.

“I practice and promote student and self-advocacy by serving on the UGA Graduate Student Association and the student science policy group (SPEAR),” said Villegas. “With fellow SPEAR members, I have organized advocacy days workshops to empower students to advocate for themselves and issues they are passionate about.”

“I have found that those who are most successful understand failure very well,” said Muralidharan. “We need to normalize this. We are working to figure out the unknown. Failure in science is normal, and it is critical for discovery.”

Vasant Muralidharan
Dr. Vasant Muralidharan’s lab utilizes molecular genetics, cell biology, and biochemistry to study the biological mechanisms driving the disease.

The award also provides funding for Muralidharan to develop mentoring skills and to share those skills with other faculty members at UGA. He has served as a mentor for many either first-generation or underrepresented students in STEM. He explains that scientists need strong support systems, especially when they experience failure in the lab. The people around them help the most.

When Villegas graduates, she hopes to continue working on and learning about science policy and advocacy. Her ideal job would allow her to be a scientist in addition to being an advocate for graduate students and a creator of equitable graduate education policies.

The Gilliam Graduate Fellowship provides Villegas an opportunity to move closer to her goals and to contribute to potentially life-saving research that could reduce the global threat of malaria.


Announcement from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

This story originally appeared at UGA’s Graduate School.

Belen Cassera named parasitology section editor for Current Clinical Microbiology Reports

Last summer, biochemistry associate professor and Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases member Belen Cassera was named the parasitology section editor for Current Clinical Microbiology Reports and has produced her first issue of reviews.

Before former Editor-in-Chief Alan Hudson from Wayne State University School of Medicine stepped down, he recruited Cassera based on a recommendation from Robert Cramer at the Geisel School of Medicine. She met Cramer during an NIH study section.

“Networking is really important if you want to get involved in the editorial side of academic journals,” said Cassera.

In addition to participating in study sections and attending conferences, participating in the peer-review process at journals can also help get your name out there, particularly for senior trainees. She believes that having senior trainees review scientific articles is an important teaching tool.

“Reviewing papers can enhance your own critical thinking,” said Cassera. “Can you ask questions to improve the study or see something missing from the research – reviewing other’s reports helps you to think out the box.”

As section editor, Cassera is responsible for determining the content for the yearly parasitology issue. And she has lofty goals for the parasitology section. She is particularly interested in topics other journals are not covering and that expand the reader’s thoughts on the subject.

“I want readers to have more questions than answers after reading the review,” said Cassera. “I want the articles to spark new ideas.”

For her first issue, she came up with a list of topics and approached researchers that could write on the subjects. However, she is open to unsolicited submissions.

“I would like to include papers for different parasites, but what I’m really looking for are papers that bring new questions to the topic,” said Cassera. “If the scientific community would benefit – if it will lead to new questions or shift our thinking, then I’m interested in it.”

If you have an idea for a possible white paper or review that you think would be a good fit for the parasitology section of Current Clinical Microbiology Reports, then contact Cassera.

Also, be sure to check out the latest reviews, two of which come from former CTEGD members:

Serendipity leads UGA researcher into uncharted territory and a new NIH grant

Ronald Drew Etheridge
Ronald Drew Etheridge, UGA assistant professor of cellular biology, was awarded a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue his gene-editing work on Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas’ disease. (Photo by Donna Huber)

Ronald Drew Etheridge’s scientific career can be characterized by one word—serendipity.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology with a Spanish language minor at the University of Georgia, Etheridge set out for Spain, where he traveled and worked as an English teacher. On his return home, and in need of a job, a former coworker mentioned a potential opening for a technician at UGA in the lab of Rick Tarleton, a leader in studying Trypanosoma cruzi, the protozoan that causes Chagas’ disease. While having worked in many labs as an undergraduate conducting basic scientific research, he had never really considered pursuing a study of immunology or parasitology. As luck would have it, his time in the Tarleton lab would spark his scientific curiosity like never before.

“It was the first time science was truly fun for me,” said Etheridge. “I really enjoyed the interesting scientific debates and rigorous research environment fostered in Rick’s lab.”

Realizing he needed further training to be a competent parasitologist, he went on to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine, and postdoctoral training at Washington University School of Medicine. In 2016, Etheridge returned to his alma mater and joined the faculty in Franklin College of Arts and Science’s Department of Cellular Biology and the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Disease as an assistant professor.

By the time he returned to UGA, his focus had shifted slightly from immunology to molecular parasitology as he delved into host-pathogen interactions involving the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. But serendipity struck again. Upon his return to UGA he realized that Tarleton and colleague Roberto Docampo had pioneered the use of the gene-editing system CRISPR-Cas9 in Trypanosoma cruzi. Their research opened up the possibility of studying this highly neglected parasite at the molecular level for the first time. This work ultimately led Etheridge to pilot gene-editing projects in T. cruzi with a focus on explaining how this parasite directly interacts with and manipulates its host.

“One of the great things about academic research is the ability to be flexible and go down new avenues of research when they present themselves,” said Etheridge.

As part of these pilot studies, Etheridge’s group identified the first protein components of what can be considered the digestive tract of this single-cell parasite. This unique feeding structure starts as a pore on the parasite surface (the cytostome) and is followed by a tubular structure called the cytopharynx that ultimately ends with captured food being sent for digestion in endocytosed vesicles. The Etheridge lab refers to this endocytic feeding organelle as the cytostome/cytopharynx complex, or SPC for short.

“That’s what is cool about science—by chance you find novel things,” said Etheridge.

When this project began, very little was known about how T. cruzi fed on its host to obtain nutrients. Since this initial discovery, the Etheridge lab has identified dozens of SPC-targeted proteins and has uncovered the protein machinery parasites use to catch and bring in food they want to digest.

“Virtually nothing was known about how this structure actually worked,” said Etheridge. “There have been some electron microscopy studies that described the structure, but that’s all we had when we first started. It has been really exciting to work on something so fundamental yet so poorly understood.”

The National Institutes of Health awarded Etheridge a new five-year grant to continue down this path in hopes of deciphering how the SPC works and the role this structure plays in T. cruzi’s parasitic life cycle. The answers to these questions could have wide implications.

“Not only can it help us to devise potential drug treatments for Chagas’ disease, an often debilitating and sometimes fatal disease which adversely affects 10 million people in the Americas,” said Etheridge. “But more broadly, it can also tell us something fundamental about the basic biology of many species of protozoa that also use the SPC structure to capture and digest food.”


This story originally appeared at UGA Research News.

Trainee Spotlight: Mayara Bertolini

trainee Mayara Bertolini

Mayara Bertolini is a third year Ph.D. trainee in the laboratory of Dr. Roberto Docampo. She has recently been awarded a predoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association.

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I am from São Paulo, Brazil and I have always been a very curious person that likes to discover unique things. Over time, I realized that biology was one of my favorite subjects, especially when it came to diseases. I decided to major in Biomedical Sciences at the Faculdade Anhanguera de Santa Bárbara D’Oeste (São Paulo, Brazil). After my graduation, I performed voluntary research training at the Laboratory of Bioenergetics of the Department of Clinical Pathology (School of Medical Sciences) of the State University of Campinas (Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil) under the supervision of Dr. Anibal Vercesi. Thereafter, I joined the Master’s program to continue my training as a scientist. There I met Dr. Roberto Docampo, who has collaborated with Dr. Vercesi for many years. Since then, I joined his research group, where Dr. Miguel Angel Chiurillo and Dr. Noelia Lander were also members of a very productive team, which has stimulated my fascination for research in parasitology. During my master’s, I was awarded a fellowship from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) to perform a functional study of the regulatory subunits Mitochondrial Ca2+ Uptake 1 (MICU1) and 2 (MICU2) involved in calcium signaling in the parasite that causes Chagas disease, Trypanosoma cruzi. My master’s project elucidated some questions and opened doors to interesting new topics, which our group is very excited to explain.

Why did you choose UGA?

I wanted to continue working with the same model to improve my scientific thinking and to complete my laboratory training, and the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases (CTEGD) at UGA has a wide range of researchers working with trypanosomes. Pursuing my Ph.D. at UGA is an extraordinary opportunity because of CTEGD’s unique infrastructure, which consists of extremely qualified professionals and resources that facilitate the development of research projects.

What is your research focus? 

T. cruzi is one of the least well understood neglected tropical disease agents and current treatments remain inadequate partly due to a general lack of knowledge of this parasite’s basic biology. We are particularly interested in establishing the role and interaction between mitochondrial proteins involved in Ca2+ uptake in this organelle. Understanding the mechanisms of adaptation and survival of the parasite upon environmental challenges, as changes in concentration of free Ca2+, will lead to important insights into the biology of this parasite and the evolution of Ca2+ signaling in eukaryotic cells. Considering that disruption of Ca2+ homeostasis by toxic agents is related to the loss of cell viability, the identification of the possible differences in mitochondrial Ca2+ transport between these parasites and the host cells could be useful for the development of new chemotherapeutic agents against Chagas disease. The purpose of the AHA predoctoral fellowship is to enhance the training of students who intend to pursue careers as scientists aimed at improving global health and wellbeing, and I feel like I can contribute to this mission.

What are your future professional plans?

After my graduation from UGA, I hope to continue for a postdoctoral research position. In the future, I would like to establish a research group in Brazil using trypanosomatids as biological models for studying the structure and function of proteins.

Any advice for a student interested in this field?

Don’t be afraid to try new things and learn from it.


Support trainees like Mayara by giving today to the Center for Tropical & Emerging Global Diseases.

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Dennis Kyle Featured Guest on People, Parasites & Plagues Podcast

Dr. Dennis Kyle, director of CTEGD and professor in the departments of cellular biology and infectious diseases, is the featured guest on Episode 5 of the People, Parasites & Plagues Podcast. He talks about a deadly disease caused by Naegleria fowleri, also known as the brain-eating amoeba.

The podcast is also available at AmazoniTunesGoogleSpotifyStitcherAudible, and TuneIn

People, Parasites & Plagues is a podcast aimed at delivering information about the fascinating pathogens among us from the impressive professionals who study them.

Join hosts Dr. David Peterson and Dr. Liliana Salvador, two infectious disease researchers from the University of Georgia, as they explore the past, present, and future of science.

Tune in every other week for a new and enlightening episode as they unpack the details surrounding some of Earth’s most perplexing diseases. Look for the People, Parasites & Plagues Podcast on your favorite Podcast service!

Belen Cassera Featured on People, Parasites and Plagues Podcast

Dr. Belen Cassera is the featured guest on Episode 4 of the People, Parasites & Plagues Podcast. She discusses the development of new drugs to treat and prevent malaria, one of the deadliest diseases afflicting humankind.

The podcast is also available at Amazon, iTunes, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, Audible, and TuneIn

People, Parasites & Plagues is a podcast aimed at delivering information about the fascinating pathogens among us from the impressive professionals who study them.

Join hosts Dr. David Peterson and Dr. Liliana Salvador, two infectious disease researchers from the University of Georgia, as they explore the past, present, and future of science.

Tune in every other week for a new and enlightening episode as they unpack the details surrounding some of Earth’s most perplexing diseases. Look for the People, Parasites & Plagues Podcast on your favorite Podcast service!

UGA’s Rozario receives NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

By Alan Flurry

(Photo courtesy of Tania Rozario)

University of Georgia faculty member Tania Rozario has received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award Program, which supports early-career investigators of exceptional creativity who propose high-risk, high-reward research projects.

Rozario is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Department of Genetics and the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.

Among the study of tropical diseases worldwide—and particularly among the parasites that cause disease—worms are a largely neglected disease agent, despite being a source of widespread problems that affect both health and economic output. Even within the study of worms, parasitic flatworms like tapeworms represent an understudied group. However, free-living flatworms like planarians are the focus of significant research because of the organism’s dynamic regenerative capacity, which presents intriguing parallels to their parasitic cousins.

Planarian flatworms cut in two will make two new worms, and cut into 10 pieces will result in 10 worms. They are the Ferrari of regenerators, according to Rozario.

“As part of its normal life cycle, a tapeworm sheds large parts of its body and then regrows this lost tissue,” Rozario said. “It has this natural regenerative-like ability, which is very promising from a basic biology standpoint, to understand how stem cells and regeneration functions in these worms.”

Taking advantage of both extensive past research and the much more sophisticated tools of today, Rozario envisions a melding of developmental biology with parasitology as a new approach to understand the parasite. She is using the rat tapeworm, Hymenolepis diminuta, to re-establish a model organism that had been a favorite model among parasitologists in the early-mid 20th century but was left behind by the molecular biology revolution.

Flatworms have incredible capacity for regeneration, according to Tania Rozario, who studies them as agents of parasitic disease. For example, this rat tapeworm is capable of growing thousands of segments and can regenerate segments following amputation.


“One of the major drivers is trying to understand the diversity of the stem cell milieu in these tapeworms,” Rozario said. “We’ll try to parse out the interaction between the diversity of stem cells present and the local signals that then allow the worms to regenerate and make thousands of segments. These interactions are likely crucial for development of both female and male reproductive structures, which exist in each segment of the animal.”

“Dr. Rozario brings a new and exciting area of research to UGA, and her enthusiasm for her research is phenomenal,” said Nancy Manley, Distinguished Research Professor and department head for genetics. “Her success in getting this prestigious award speaks to her talent and the quality of her science. We are enthusiastic to have her as our newest colleague.”

“I am excited that Dr. Rozario has joined us at UGA,” said Dennis Kyle, GRA Eminent Scholar in antiparasitic drug discovery and director of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. “Her pioneering work is ushering in a new era whereby tapeworms can serve as model organisms. The prestigious NIH Director’s Pioneer Award is evidence of the creative approach she is undertaking to better understand these interesting parasites.”

“It’s important that we study the monsters in our midst so that we can learn from organisms in our environment that have these really out-there, unique physiological capabilities,” Rozario said. “We can learn about how they have evolved strategies to thrive in their specific niche, but they can also teach us something more fundamental about biology that could be broadly applicable.”

microscopy of tapeworms
In these Hymenolepis diminuta tapeworm necks, dividing cells—including stem cells—are depicted through color-marking in the image. (Image courtesy of Tania Rozario)

Trainee Spotlight: Nathan Chasen

Nathan Chasen is a post-doctoral fellow in Drew Etheridge’s laboratory (submitted photo)

Nathan Chasen, a postdoctoral fellow in Drew Etheridge’s laboratory, is originally from Richmond, Virginia. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Emory University, he worked as a research technician at UGA. He then decided to attend UGA for graduate school. Under the mentorship of Silvia Moreno, Chasen received two American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship Awards and earned his Ph.D. in December of 2017.

Why did you choose UGA? 

I chose UGA because it is one of the best places in the world to study parasites for both the quality of the work and the collaborative research environment.

What is your research focus/project and why are you interested in the topic? 

My current research focus is the poorly understood endocytic organelle of the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is the causal agent of Chagas disease.

What are your future professional plans?  

I plan to establish an academic lab that continues to unravel the nature of this neglected parasite, using state-of-the-art molecular tools and microscopy methods.

What is your favorite thing about UGA and Athens? 

The area is a great low-cost living area, with little traffic and essentially everything you need within a 15-minute drive, including great food and a lively downtown area. The ability to live affordably within a short bike ride of campus is also a plus.


Support trainees like Nathan by giving today to the Center for Tropical & Emerging Global Diseases.

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