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Makedonka Mitreva: Genomics to Power Study of Neglected Diseases

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Title: Assistant director, Genome Center, and Research Assistant Professor, Washington University School of Medicine
Education: PhD, Wageningen University and Research Centre, the Netherlands, 2001
Recommended by: George Weinstock, Washington University School of Medicine

It was a fascination with the destructive power of microscopic pathogens that brought Makedonka Mitreva to study helmenthic parasites. Parasitic nematodes, she says, cause about half of the world's neglected tropical diseases and can lead to blindness and affect child development, in addition to wreaking havoc on crops and livestock. Mitreva is currently leading an effort to sequence human- and plant-parasitic nematodes. So far, she says, her team has generated several million expressed sequenced tags and cDNA from more than 35 parasitic nematode species — including some that are drug-resistant. Mitreva's lab is also scouring the nematode genome for ways to control the parasites. While other parasites lose some of their innate metabolic function and become dependent on the host, nematodes tend not to as they also spend time outside the host. Mitreva is analyzing and aligning the different metabolic pathways and homologous proteins to find nematode-specific pathways or proteins that could be drug targets.

"As our preliminary studies have suggested, [there are] differences in [the proteins'] functional context — and my focus is on protein families conserved across the most prevalent human pathogens, in particular proteins involved in the endocrine system ion signaling pathways," she says.

In addition, Mitreva is participating in the Human Microbiome Project. As part of her work there, she's developing new computational tools to study the metabolic networks and capabilities of microbial communities. Down the road, she plans to bring the two projects together to study how microflora and microfauna interact. "It will be interesting to make the link between the two," she says.

Papers of note

In 2004, Mitreva and her colleagues published a transcriptomic analysis of the phylum Nematoda in Nature Genetics. In it, they compared partial genomes from parasitic and free-living nematodes to the complete genomes of Caenorhabditis briggsae and C. elegans and identified conserved, nematode-specific, and more taxonomically restricted genes and gene species. "It was the first phylum analysis based on EST collections from 30 different nematodes," she adds.

And the Nobel goes to ...

Mitreva says she would like to win "for a lifetime of research that will improve the lives of people across the globe."

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