The infection can also cause birth defects, if the mother is infected for the first time while pregnant. (If she is already infected before becoming pregnant, there is usually no danger to the fetus.)
There are drugs that can kill the parasite when it first infects someone, but once cysts are formed, it is very difficult to eradicate them.
A few years ago, Saeij and colleagues showed that the Toxoplasma parasite secretes two proteins called rhoptry18 and rhoptry16 into the host cell. Those proteins allow the parasite to take over many host-cell functions.
In the new study, the MIT team showed that the parasite also secretes a protein called GRA15, which triggers inflammation in the host. All Toxoplasma strains have this protein, but only the version found in type II causes inflammation, an immune reaction that is meant to destroy invaders but can also damage the host's own tissues if unchecked. In the brain, inflammation can lead to encephalitis. This ability to cause inflammation likely explains why the type II strain is so much more hazardous for humans, says Saeij.
Saeij and his team, which included MIT Department of Biology graduate students Emily Rosowski and Diana Lu, showed that type II GRA15 leads to the activation of the transcription factor known as NF-kB, which eventually stimulates production of proteins that cause inflammation. The team is now trying to figure out how that interaction between GRA15 and NF-kB occurs, and why it is advantageous to the parasite.
Ultimately, Saeij hopes to figure out how the parasite is able to evade the immune system and establish a chronic infection. Such work could eventually lead to new drugs that block the parasite from establishing such an infection, or a vaccine that consists of a de-activated form of the parasite.
|Contact: Jessica Holmes|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology