UC Blue Ash student presents research at a major international conference

New findings about brain-eating amoebas lead to a presentation at the World Microbe Forum

Aqsa Raja at Walters Hall on the UC Blue Ash campus

Aqsa Raja at Walters Hall on the UC Blue Ash campus

When Aqsa Raja began an undergraduate research project last spring as part of her Honors Program experience at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, she never imagined it would lead to a presentation just a year later at a major international conference for microbiologists.

Raja says she was even more surprised to receive the invitation to the World Microbe Forum since her research focuses on the biology of fresh-water brain-eating amoebas, rather than the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“I was stunned. I wasn’t expecting to be considered to present because I thought my topic, amidst all of the current virus research, would be insignificant,” she says.

The World Microbe Forum was held as a virtual event from June 20-24, 2021. It was created through a collaboration between the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS), and several other science-focused societies.

Professor Yoshi Odaka discusses research with Aqsa Raja.

Professor Yoshi Odaka discusses an aspect of the research process with Aqsa Raja.

Raja is a biology major who has been researching brain-eating amoebas under the guidance of Yoshi Odaka, PhD, an assistant professor of biology at UC Blue Ash. The findings she has generated could actually be very significant.

Brain-eating amoebas, also known as Naegleria fowleri, are commonly found in warm freshwater (e.g. lakes, rivers, and hot springs) and soil, primarily in the southern part of the United States. They can infect people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. This doesn’t happen often – the Centers for Disease Control tracks about five cases per year in the U.S. – but when it occurs it typically leads to a deadly infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). Statistics show an infection from the brain-eating amoeba is fatal in more than 97% of the cases, and many of the victims are children.

Raja and Odaka are studying the function of a protein called Target of Rapamycin (TOR) in Naegleria gruberi, a non-pathogenic species that is closely related (the same genus) to Naegleria fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba. The goal is to develop a drug that will effectively treat PAM.

“The most important results I’ve found are the effects of TOR inhibitors on Naegleria gruberi cells,” says Raja. “I screened a large collection of compounds that are related to a key signaling pathway in amoeba. No one has tried this experiment yet, so this is the most exciting result we have seen so far.”

Odaka expands a little more on the significance of the result. “Aqsa’s finding is that Naglaeria gruberi, and presumably Naglaeria fowleri, is highly sensitive to a TOR inhibitor called Torin-1. According to her data, the amoeba is more sensitive to this inhibitor than the current medication for the amoeba infection. We are fascinated by the phenomena and will pursue it further. Aqsa also has shown that Naegleria shows resistance to another type of TOR inhibitor, called rapamycin. This was surprising as most eukaryotic organisms are sensitive to the drug.”

Since the World Microbe Forum was a virtual event, Raja recorded her presentation in advance, and it was shared in a virtual poster hall. She has since heard from a researcher at the University of Alabama who was interested in learning more about the set up and process for the project.

Raja is an outstanding student who plans to transition to the UC Uptown campus to complete her bachelor’s degree in biology before moving on to the next phase of her academic journey. She had been considering medical school, but her work with Professor Odaka and the progress they have made over the past year has her considering a career as a scientist.

“I genuinely enjoy working on this topic. Dr. Odaka and I did discover some interesting new findings that have not been published yet on the topic,” says Raja. “Dr. Odaka often reminds me that the research doesn’t always turn out the way we wish, but each discovery opens a new path to explore, and he’s correct; one closed door means it’s time to knock and open others.”

There is a possibility that the door Raja has helped open could lead to a breakthrough in treating the potentially deadly infection caused by fresh-water brain-eating amoebas.

“I’m really fortunate to have been part of Dr. Odaka’s project,” she adds. “I’m still learning, and I still make mistakes, but it’s part of the process and I’ve learned many aspects of biology research that I could not have picked up on in the classroom.”

About UC Blue Ash College

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