ACBS Postdoctoral Researcher Receives Esteemed USDA Award

Oct. 1, 2020

Jennifer Lising Roxas, a postdoctoral fellow, recently received three postdoctoral research grants, including a two-year USDA NIFA Postdoctoral Fellowship. She works in the laboratory of Gayatri Vedantam, professor of immunobiology and animal and comparative biomedical sciences (ACBS).  Roxas received her PhD in Microbiology and Pathobiology from the University of Arizona working under the advisement of V.K. Viswanathan, professor in ACBS.

Through the USDA fellowship Roxas will be awarded $165K over the next two years to purchase research supplies, attend professional development conferences, and supplement her salary. Roxas was also awarded the Sursum Postdoctoral Fellowship, a UArizona Postdoctoral Research Development Grant that fosters independence and advances the career goals of postdoctoral scholars, and the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship, demonstrating her grant writing prowess to the USDA grant reviewers helping to secure her USDA fellowship.  Roxas will use the grants to further study Cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite that causes diarrheal disease in humans and other animals.

Infections with Cryptosporidium, or Crypto, are the leading cause of water-borne diseases among humans in the US. The parasite is often transmitted at daycare facilities and public swimming pools, and infection leads to severe diarrhea, which can have life-threatening consequences, especially in immunocompromised patients. Crypto is the second leading cause of infectious diarrhea in children, and it is also the leading cause of diarrhea-related death in neonatal calves.

There are currently no vaccines for human infection. According to Michael Riggs, professor of pathology in the College of Medicine-Tucson and ACBS, the current treatment option is both expensive and lacking efficacy, as it minimally reduces length of disease. Crypto is also resilient to environmental insults such as drought and high heat, as well as man made chlorine-based products. Thus, methods to prevent and treat Crypto infections in humans and animals are desperately needed, but tools to study the parasite are sparse.

Bringing a strong background in the mechanisms of Crypto infection from her previous ACBS research, Roxas aims to use her new award to develop tools to prevent infection altogether. By combining her background in proteomics with Vedantam’s expertise in probiotics, Roxas plans to create a probiotic strain of bacteria that inhabits the same intestinal niche as Crypto. Given as a supplement to the newborn calf, the probiotic is expected to out compete Crypto for the same space in the gut, thereby preventing infection.

Roxas also hypothesizes that the probiotic could be used like a vaccine, and if given to pregnant cows, might be able to produce hyperimmune colostrum - the antibody-rich mammary gland secretion following birth - for passive immunity in the newborn calves. 
Roxas says her work is a collaborative effort, “I am truly grateful to our ACBS family for the support I have been fortunate to experience throughout these years. My career achievements, including this grant award, was made possible by the positive learning and working environment in our department and the University.”

This collaboration not only draws upon the techniques she learned from both Vedantam and Viswanathan, but also to the methods to study Crypto from her third mentor, Riggs. According to Roxas, Riggs is a “world-renowned expert in Crypto research” and has pioneered many of the research tools and infection models used to study the parasite.

In addition to studying Crypto, Roxas directs the production of hand sanitizer for Arizona health care workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Vedantam, Roxas’ leadership has enabled the team to scale up from producing just 100 bottles of sanitizer in March, to now more than 30,000 bottles.

Roxas plans to build a career determining the ways in which different intestinal pathogens cause life-threatening illnesses as an independent university research professor.

- Adapted from BIO5 Newsletter 8/25/20
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