By Josh Wagner
This week’s Glamorous Grad Student, Mireille Kamariza, is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in biology. Kamariza is researching detection networks for tuberculosis (TB) and developing new, practical and inexpensive tools that can be used in clinics worldwide. The Stanford Daily spoke with Kamariza about her inspirations and the potential impact of her research on the state of world health.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What are you researching in your lab?
Mireille Kamariza (MK): My lab, Carolyn Bertozzi‘s lab, is known [in] our chemistry department. We’ve traditionally been building a lot of sugar molecules. The easiest way I can explain this is that we have been looking at a biological system and trying to find molecules that do not exist in biology that we can use to either see or probe things that we want to study. We have a lot of expertise in doing sugar chemistry and building these types of molecules. My project is using one particular molecule to very specifically visualize cells that are pathogenic to humans, since they light up green. It’s a collective of cells called microbacteria. These organisms include mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is the cause of TB.
This is particularly powerful because there hasn’t been any specific agent that people can use in clinics to very specifically find TB from patient samples. It’s like a next generation, a potential detection method, for TB diagnosis in low-resource settings because it’s very cheap to make, very quick to make and readily available to anyone. That’s why a lot people are interested in this.
TSD: What was your inspiration for the project?
MK: I’m a TB scientist, so I was working on a different TB project for the first half of my Ph.D. career. When we moved here [from UC Berkeley], I was waiting for my bio-safety level three (BSL III) room to be built where I could work with pathogens. While I was waiting, I got bored and was looking for a side project. I was talking to a bunch of people in my lab, fishing for something to do in the meantime. I was talking to this really talented chemist [and] he came up with the design for the probe. We thought about how to use [the probe] in a way that has potential applications in clinics, so that’s what I was interested in.
TSD: Why did you choose to study TB?
MK: I’m from East Africa. There, TB is a much bigger problem than it is here… We’re moving into an era of bacterial resistance and we need to find new drugs to fight those new strains. But TB has existed for centuries and it’s still a problem — two billion people are predicted to be infected. Although in the United States it’s not a priority, in some developing countries, it’s a huge issue. I understood that and when I was an undergrad, I knew I wanted to study infectious disease because that was something motivational for me. I tried various things like working on intestinal worms.
But senior year, when I was looking for where to apply for grad school, I had an assignment to research Carolyn Bertozzi and write a paper about her. Through researching her path to science and what she now does, I was very inspired and I got interested in TB and I read a lot on the subject. I thought what she was doing was very exciting and I felt like I could participate and do something to help her.
TSD: How is working with a pathogen different from working with non-hazardous compounds?
MK: Like I said, the microbacteria in TB is a BSL III pathogen, so there are a lot of safety precautions that come with it. You have to have your own room and it has to be secure, so any air that comes into the room has to be sucked out and filtered and cleaned out. I have to wear a spacesuit outfit before going in and I look crazy. To try to then go into this room, wearing all these things and then trying to manipulate a tiny bottle of chemicals, is really hard to get used to. [But] for me, I was patient because I knew that this is something I wanted to do.
TSD: What are your predictions and hopes for the project?
MK: I have a lot of hopes, though I don’t have a lot of predictions. My hope is that it works well and it turns out that it’s useful tech. I think that on the clinical side, things may not work as well as I hope. But even though it might not be sufficient for clinical diagnosis, it may just be a nice complement to other tools that are already in use — that would be fine with me. On the research side, this probe is going to very powerful for some people, and so I am very proud of that.
TSD: Is it possible to apply this technology to other diseases?
MK: Yes, it is possible. The reason why it works with TB is that the sugar that we tagged the probe onto is specifically recognized by TB cells, so they eat it up but other bacteria don’t — it’s specific to these Actinomyces organisms. Using the same concept, you can imagine just changing the sugar and adding a different sugar that is specific to a different organism. Or even not making it a sugar, but a lipid or protein or a DNA tag; you can go wild. Right now, I just want to see how this pans out.