Principal Investigators

In the 2016 Call for Proposals there were 43 Letters of Intent submitted, from which 12 full proposals were requested and 6 awards were made. Congratulations to the selected Principal Investigators;

Prof. Bouke de Jong, “Improved understanding of ongoing transmission of leprosy in the Comoros, a region hyperendemic for the disease”

ProfBoukeProf. Bouke de Jong graduated in Medicine in 1995 from the University of Amsterdam, in internal medicine at the University of Nevada at Reno in 2000, and in infectious diseases at Stanford University in 2003.

At Stanford University she worked on the molecular epidemiology of tuberculosis, which studies she extended to the MRC Laboratories in The Gambia in 2003. In 2005 she completed MSc studies in epidemiology at the Netherlands Institute for Health Sciences, and in 2007 defended her PhD entitled “Studies on Mycobacterium africanum in The Gambia” at the University of Amsterdam. In 2007, Dr. de Jong joined the Division of Infectious Diseases at New York University as a tenure track Assistant Professor, while continuing her studies in The Gambia.

In 2010 Prof. Bourke de Jong was appointed as head of the Unit of Mycobacteriology at the Institute of Tropical Medicine. As a clinical infectious diseases and mycobacteriology expert with molecular epidemiological experience on tuberculosis and Buruli ulcer, she proposes to lead a cohort study on leprosy in the Comoros islands. Since the 1980s, the local leprosy control team had worked with her predecessor at the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine, Prof. Stefaan Pattyn. Together with colleagues Epco Hasker (clinical epidemiologist who worked in leprosy control in different countries) and Philip Suffys (mycobacteriologist with extensive leprosy experience in Brazil), Prof. de Jong hopes to unravel the consistently high transmission rates in the island of Anjouan, with the aim of identifying persons at highest risk, to permit rational administration of prophylaxis.

Project summary: Intensive investigation of the epidemiology of leprosy in Anjouan, the most endemic of the four islands in the Comoros, is proposed.  The team is strong, with good local representation, and long-standing support from the Damien Foundation in Belgium. The project starts with retrospective mapping of all incident cases (which are well-documented) over the past 16 years, to identify hot-spots and trends. A prospective study of new cases will involve PGL-1 and cytokine analysis of all cases and their contacts, while M. leprae strain-typing will be carried out on samples from MB patients.  Chemoprophylaxis with single-dose rifampicin has been started recently in four villages, so the effect of this intervention can be observed and compared with other villages as controls.

Dr. JoAnn M. Tufariello, “Mycobacterium haemophilum: A Novel System to Elucidate M. leprae‐host Interactions”

Dr. JoAnn M. Tufariello received her MD-PhD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, did her Internal Medicine residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and an Infectious Disease Fellowship at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  She recently took a new faculty position in the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis in the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University.  For the past >15 years she has been studying how M. tuberculosis, the causative agent of tuberculosis, interacts with its host.  Her work, performed in the laboratory of Dr. John Chan, initially centered on bacterial factors regulating reactivation from latent infection.

More recently, in the laboratory of Dr. William Jacobs, she has studied the roles of the ESX-3 secretion system in iron uptake and virulence. Her interest in mycobacterial iron acquisition pathways led her to determine the sequence of the opportunistic pathogen Mycobacterium haemophilum which has unique requirements for iron supplementation to allow its growth in vitro, revealing M. haemophilum to be among the closest culturable relatives of M. leprae, the causative agent of leprosy.  She developed methods to deliver foreign DNA to M. haemophilum and devised a genetic strategy that changed the iron dependence of M. haemophilum, allowing it to grow on an alternative iron source by supplying M. tuberculosis genes missing from both M. haemophilum and M. leprae.  Based on these findings, and on her success in enhancing the ease by which M. haemophilum can be cultured, Dr. Tufariello has undertaken efforts to allow the axenic culture of M. leprae.  As M. leprae has never been successfully grown in vitro, these research directions address a long sought after but elusive milestone in the field.

Project summary: The study aims to solve the problem that M. leprae cannot be grown on axenic media. To achieve this and a number of related aims, the study will develop approaches to introduce or knockout M. leprae genes in M. haemophilum and study the role of specific genes in the interaction with host cells. To achieve this, an initial focus is on the iron acquisition pathway, and on the production of PGL-1 as well as on bacterial growth in epithelial cells, macrophages and Schwann cells.

Dr. Rahul Sharma, “Genomic markers for pathological variants and transmission of leprosy bacilli”

DrRahulSharmaDr. Rahul Sharma received his B.Sc from the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur in 1999, his M.SC. from Dr BR Ambedkar University, Agra in 2008 and his Ph.D. in Biotechnology from Dr BR Ambedkar University Agra and National JALMA Institute for Leprosy and Other Mycobacterial Disease Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in 2008.

Dr. Sharma is published in 20 publications, filed 3 patents, and contributed to 2 book chapters. He is a Biotechnologist with more than 10 years of experience in molecular biology, genomics, research reagent development and infectious disease epidemiology.

He recently took a new position as a Scientist Microbiologist (Molecular) in the National Hansen’s Disease Program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after working as a Senior Research Associate and Post-Doctoral Fellow, at the National Hansen’s Disease Program at LSU School of Veterinary Medicine since 2008.

Project Summary: The main thrust of the application is to develop a cost-efficient capture system for M. leprae DNA that allows for next generation sequencing of the recovered DNA.  The applicants propose to use sequencing libraries prepared from mouse foot pad (MFP)-derived M. leprae as baits to enrich M. leprae DNA obtained from clinical or environmental sources with expected low counts of M. leprae bacilli.  If successful, this would provide a useful tool to study M. leprae transmission networks and dynamics.  In addition, the applicants propose to use the methodology to study M. leprae strain impact on host phenotypes.

Prof. Dr. Annemieke Geluk, “Identification of human susceptibility genes and pathogen-based transmission patterns for human and environmental sources of M.leprae in a leprosy endemic area in Bangladesh”

ProfAnnemiekeProf. Dr. Annemieke Geluk obtained a masters in Chemistry at the University of Leiden and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville and a PhD in Immunology at the LUMC, Dept. IHB (HLA-DR3/ Peptide/ T cell Interactions). She received postdoctoral training at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota and was acknowledged a 5-year fellowship by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences during which period she focused on the immunology of leprosy and tuberculosis, particularly the identification of HLA-restricted T cell (epitopes) that are essential to protective immunity or immunopathology and biomarkers for development of immunodiagnostics.

Prof. Dr. Geluk’s current research focuses on Immunodiagnostics of Leprosy including basic-, translational-, applied- as well as field research and Tuberculosis Vaccine Development using HLA transgenic mouse models. Currently, she is a member of the steering committee of the IDEAL consortium (Initiative for Diagnostic and Epidemiological Assays for Leprosy) and has designed and coordinated several large-scale, multi-center studies in e.g. Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia and Nepal.

Project summary: This project aims to understand in more detail how people respond immunologically to the presence of M. leprae in order to obtain insight into which immunological responses in people indicate that they are susceptible to developing leprosy. The overall goal is to determine host and pathogen-derived markers that provide insight into susceptibility to leprosy and transmission of M. leprae, respectively.

Dr. Pushpendra Singh, “Biomarkers for early detection of leprosy using comparative transcriptomics”

DrPushpendraSinghDr. Pushpendra Singh completed his PhD from National JALMA Institute for Leprosy and Other Mycobacterial Diseases, Agra, India under supervision of Dr. VM Katoch. He worked as a Scientist in the laboratory of Prof. Stewart Cole (EPFL, Lausanne, Switzerland) and Dr. Richard Truman (NHDP, Baton Rouge, LA) and contributed in development of molecular epidemiological scheme for M. leprae strains, which was used successfully for investigating the role of armadillos in zoonotic spread of leprosy in Southern USA (NEJM 2011).

His contribution in ancient M.leprae genomics and M. lepromatosis genome project have provided significant insights into evolutionary aspects of leprosy bacilli (Science 2013 and PNAS 2015). He has recently joined as an Assistant Professor in the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara in India. His current research interests include the identification of molecular markers for M. leprae transmission using comparative genomics and biomarkers for early detection of leprosy using comparative transcriptomics.

Project summary: This is a part of a larger, already ongoing study. Six armadillos have been infected with M. leprae, and four developed an infection. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) and skin biopsies have been collected at various time points. The transcriptome will be determined in the collected samples using RNA sequencing and sequence analysis to determine biomarkers that are associated with resistance/disease.

Professor Kevin Robert Macaluso, “Role of arthropods in transmission of leprosy”

ProfKevinRoberMacalusoProf. Kevin R. Macaluso graduated with a Masters of Science in Biology from Sul Ross State University, and with his PhD from Oklahoma State University in Entomology. After his undergraduate and graduate training, he became a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) F32 Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Maryland School of Medicine, from 2000 to 2004.

Prof. Macaluso’s research focuses on the interplay between Rickettsia and arthropod vectors, resulting in transmission of these bacterial pathogens to vertebrate hosts.  These include tick- and flea-borne spotted fever agents.  His  studies on transmission models of rickettsioses has been supported by funding from the NIH since 2001 by a number of awards including a NRSA K22 Career Development Award, two NIH R21 awards, an ARRA supplement for equipment and postdoctoral training in his laboratory, and two current R01’s.

Currently serving as a regular member for NIH Vector Biology Study Section and on the Military Infectious Disease Research Program (MIDRP) peer review since 2009 and as ad hoc reviewer for many other organizations including the National Tick-borne Disease Research Fund.  He previously served as an ad hoc reviewer on several special emphasis panels since 2009.  His laboratory has published more than 40 papers in respected, peer-reviewed journals and he regularly participates as an invited speaker at international conferences.

In 2011, Prof. Macaluso became the director for the LSU SVM ‘Summer Scholars Program’ and in 2015, the co-PI on the LSU SVM NIH T-32 for pathology training program with Tulane University. He currently works as the Mary Louise Martin Professor and in the Department of Pathobiological Sciences.  He is also an adjunct member of the Department of Entomology, located in the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station.

Project Summary: Zoonotic transmission of leprosy from wild armadillos has been well documented. The majority of patients presenting with zoonotic strains of Mycobacterium leprae note extensive outdoor activity; but only rarely report any history of direct contact with wild armadillos. Whether M. leprae transits to new hosts through the environment independently or with the aid of other organisms, is a fundamental question in leprosy transmission. Many NTDs are spread through the aid of arthropod vectors. M. leprae has limited extracellular survival capacity. Intermediary organisms that sustain viability of leprosy bacilli outside the host could play important roles in leprosy transmission. We propose to determine the ability of Amblyomma ticks, which commonly infest both humans and armadillos in the southern United States, to harbor viable M. leprae and transmit the pathogen between vertebrate hosts. Additionally, the host-dependent transcriptional activity of M. leprae will be assessed, providing insight into the molecular basis of pathogenesis.