Within the Department of Biological Sciences at Youngstown State University, there are many areas of research being explored by faculty and students alike. In a monthly series, we will highlight faculty research that covers various aspects of biomedical efforts from DNA to bacteria, fungi, and more.
Dr. Chet Cooper is a Professor of Biological Sciences at YSU. He holds a BS degree in Biology from Pitt-Johnstown. He earned his Master and PhD in Microbiology from the University of Texas.
Dr. Cooper researches a fungus that effects AIDS patients in Southeast Asia. The fungus cannot be found in soil or vegetation but it is known that it affects bamboo rats and humans. The only way a human can be infected by this fungus is by traveling to Southeast Asia and being HIV positive. The fungus is breathed in and can live in the body for several years before symptoms are observed.
The fungus, Talaromyces marneffei, was first discovered in the 1950s and brought to greater attention in the 1970s and 1980s when the AIDS epidemic occurred in Thailand. In some places in this country, up to 30% of AIDS patients contracted the fungal disease.
The fungi start attacking a person with AIDS by first giving the patient pneumonia. The infection then will spread to the skin, giving the patient skin lesions. After that, the infection will spread to the organs of the body and can be 100% fatal if it is not treated.
Dr. Cooper started researching fungi in graduate school. His first position out of graduate school was in a state health department in New York. He became familiar with different types of fungi through that position. Soon after, Dr. Cooper was asked to study how this fungus that attacks AIDS patients reacts to anti-fungal agents. His colleague from Thailand worked with him, and his research has progressed since.
“There are only 4-5 labs that study this around the entire world,” said Dr. Cooper. “People come from different countries to earn their PhD at YSU and work in the lab with this fungus.”
“There are several anti-fungal drugs that can be used to treat people who contract the fungus,” said Dr. Cooper. “But we are seeing more and more people experience side-effects and resistance to the drugs.”
At room temperature, the fungi grow filamentously. When the fungi are in the body, it is a single-celled organism that takes the form of a yeast. Dr. Cooper has recently been focusing on genes that could potentially be linked to the yeast phase of the fungus.
“A great co-worker of mine, Dr. Min, developed a software package for the entire genome of fungus,” said Dr. Cooper. “It will tell you the gene products that are pushed out of the cell.”
This software found 538 tentative genes that could potentially be connected to the fungi.
“It is also very important to know that fungi get their nutrition by sending enzymes out of the cell, digesting the substance, and absorbing,” said Dr. Cooper.
Undergraduate students that work with Dr. Cooper are developing a method using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to identify genes and see a particular gene is on the list of 538 tentative genes. They have used a different form of PCR to see if the genes were specifically expressed in the yeast phase or both the yeast and room temperature phases. The purpose of this was to find solely the corresponding yeast phase genes. It turns out that they found genes that were like this.
This gives evidence that those types of genes are being expressed. In a future study, Dr. Cooper and his undergraduate students will grow the fungus in the yeast phase and examine it for the proteins produced. If they find the same types of protein in the fungi it will prove the gene is associated with it.
Ultimately, Dr. Cooper wants to determine the genes and proteins that are produced by the pathogenic form, which can lead to treatments and potential cures for this fungus and many others.
Some people who contract the fungus go into remission following initial treatment. However, they must take an antifungal drug for the rest of their lives because the fungi take hold in their immune system. If the drug is not taken, the person will become sick again because the body will not attack its own immune system.
To contact Dr. Cooper about his research, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.