Leading Toxoplasma expert Michael White looks for ways to shut down the malaria-related parasites [VIDEO]

| Departments, Featured News, Global Health, Global Health and Infectious Diseases Research, Monday Letter, Our Research

The neglected parasitic infection that USF College of Public Health microbiologist Michael White, PhD, has spent the last 20 years studying causes few, if any, symptoms in healthy people.  But the disease caused by the malaria-related parasite T. gondii, known as toxoplasmosis, can cause life-threatening illness in people with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, the elderly and babies born to women infected during pregnancy.

“Toxoplasma can be a dangerous infection that’s easy to overlook, because it’s not filling our emergency rooms,” said Dr. White a professor of molecular medicine and global health and one of the world’s leading experts on the malaria-related parasite. “But it’s a potential time bomb.”

Michael White, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts on the malaria-related parasites T. gondii.

Michael White, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts on the malaria-related parasites T. gondii.

People can acquire toxoplasmosis several ways — usually by direct exposure to the feces of cats or by eating undercooked meat of an infected animal, or drinking water contaminated with the organism.  Up to 15 percent of the world’s population is estimated to be infected with T. gondii, and in some parts of the world where sanitation is poor and eating raw or undercooked meat is customary, nearly all people carry the parasite, Dr. White said. In Brazil, particularly virulent strains of the parasite cause a high-incidence of vision-threatening eye disease.

Because the organism is common, relatively easy to disseminate and not easily killed with standard disinfection measures, the National Institutes of Health cites the toxoplasma parasite as a potential threat to national security and public health.

Dr. White is deputy director of the Florida Center of Excellence in Drug Discovery and Innovation at USF.  His research team combines genetic, biochemical and cell biology approaches to understand how the parasite replicates, establishes chronic infection and interacts with host cells. Their goal is to find new ways to combat the pervasive parasite, which has both rapidly dividing acute stage destructive to healthy tissue and a chronic stage where egg-like cysts remain invisible to the immune system, basically hiding out in brain or muscle tissues to avoid attack.

No drugs or vaccines currently exist to treat or prevent the chronic, or dormant, stage of the disease.

Dr. White with his research team at the USF-based Florida Center of Excellence in Drug Discovery and Innovation. From left: Jeanine Yacoub, graduate student in the Department of Chemistry; Dong-Pyo Hong, PhD, assistant professor; Elena Suvorova, PhD; assistant professor; Carmelo Alvarez, MS, research technician; and Anatoli Naumov, PhD, assistant professor.

Dr. White with his research team at the USF-based Florida Center of Excellence in Drug Discovery and Innovation. From left: Jeanine Yacoub, graduate student in the Department of Chemistry; Dong-Pyo Hong, PhD, assistant professor; Elena Suvorova, PhD; assistant professor; Carmelo Alvarez, MS, research technician; and Anatoli Naumov, PhD, assistant professor.

“A major clinical challenge with toxoplasmosis is that the T. gondii cysts can quietly slip into into your brain or muscle cells, where they can settle without growing” until weakened immunity reactivates the disease, Dr. White said.  “The drugs used to treat toxoplasma infections only attack growth, so they do not cure the lifelong infection. They help reduce the danger of acute infection for AIDS patients or others with compromised immune systems.”

In the past several years Dr. White’s laboratory, working with partners at the University of Georgia, made several intriguing discoveries about the growth and development of the malaria-related parasite. Their work with T. gondii may also lead to new therapies to combat drug-resistant strains of malaria, a mosquito-borne tropical disease threatening to resurge as a public health crisis in certain parts of the world.

Read the full story with video and audio clips from Dr. White at USF Health News