by Marcia Hill Gossard '99, '04
For the past seven years Dr. Mike Konkel, professor in the School for Molecular Biosciences (SMB), and Dr. Doug Call, professor in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology (VMP), have been working together to find answers about how to better control some of the most serious disease causing bacteria found in our food supply.
“I believe the best work comes from collaboration,” said Dr. Konkel. “The key for us is we complement each other well. We have overlapping interests, but different expertise and are willing to be flexible and accommodate each other. That’s what makes a collaboration like ours last for so many years.”
Dr. Doug Call (back left) and Dr. Mike Konkel (front right) work with doctoral
students Dan Erwin (front left) and Jason Neal-McKinney (back right).
“Mike is one of the leading Campylobacter investigators in the world,” said Dr. Call. “It is a privilege to work with him.”
Drawing on each other’s expertise, they study two food-borne pathogens—Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni) and Vibrio parahaemolyticus (V. parahaemolyticus)—both of which cause gastrointestinal infections with symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that can sometimes result in death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States alone, food-borne pathogens cause an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths each year.
Dr. Konkel has been a leading expert on C. jejuni for nearly two decades. Often found in poultry, it is the most commonly reported bacterial cause of diarrhea worldwide. In the United States alone, the CDC estimates that more than 2 million cases of Campylobacter infection occur each year with approximately 100 deaths.
V. parahaemolyticus, one of Dr. Call’s research focuses, is found in marine life and transferred to humans primarily through the consumption of raw or undercooked seafood. The CDC estimates roughly 4,500 cases of V. parahaemolyticus infection each year, but the number of cases reported is much lower because surveillance is complicated due to underreporting.
Although both these bacteria commonly found in our food supply can make humans sick, they do not normally cause disease in animals.
Around the lab, Campylobacter jejuni is often referred to by its easier-to-pronounce nickname “Campy.”
“Campy causes disease in humans, but is normal flora in the gastrointestinal tract of chickens,” explained Dr. Konkel. “Collaborating with Doug has allowed us to examine the differences in the responses of human and chicken cells to the bacteria.”
By using different types of cells they are able to better understand why humans, but not chickens, develop disease from the bacteria. And knowing that may one day provide an answer that will help prevent human illness and even death.
Dr. Konkel believes a good understanding of basic science is necessary for finding solutions to real-world problems. A year and a half ago, he also began collaborating with Dr. Steve Simasko, professor and chair of the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology (VCAPP). The two have been working to better understand neuro-immune interactions in the gastrointestinal tract related to the vagus nerve, which travels from the brain all the way to the colon.
Dr. Steve Simasko and Dr. Mike Konkel research the cause of inflammatory responses in the digestive system.
“It is a project that neither of us could do alone,” said Dr. Simasko. “Neither of us has the expertise to do this research without the other’s training and background. That’s the magic of collaboration.”
With better understanding about how infection activates the vagus nerve—and how the vagus controls inflammation—it could lead to clues about inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease, which are currently not well controlled with standard treatment.
Over the years, these collaborative efforts have also greatly benefitted graduate student education and postdoctoral research. For instance, experiments can be designed to answer questions from different perspectives, many of which would not have been able to be conducted otherwise.
“Working collaboratively exposes you to research topics and ideas that you may not encounter in your own lab,” said Jason Neal-McKinney, a doctoral candidate in the SMB.
Collaboration between neuroscience, microbiology, and immunology helps to train students to be more competitive as they leave school to do their own research.
“I feel that these types of collaborations are vital for the advancement of my career as a neuroscientist,” said Tim Riley, a doctoral candidate in the VCAPP department.
Since the School of Molecular Biosciences joined the college on July 1, 2010, it has created a larger group of biomedical research scientists and a greater pool of resources. Once the new Veterinary Medical Research Building, which will be adjoined to the Biotechnology/Life Sciences building that houses the School of Molecular Biosciences, is complete at the end of 2012, collaborative efforts between VCAPP and SMB will be even easier.
“Now that we are all on the same team, it further reduces barriers to collaboration. And the proximity of the building will also help,” said Dr. Simasko.
“Combining resources with veterinary medicine will make us more competitive nationally,” said Dr. Konkel. “Through collaboration I believe answers to some of the most important questions in biomedical research will be found.”