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UCalgary researchers step up exploration of deadly 'Trojan horse' pathogens

Microbes that live inside immune cells kill more than a million people a year in developing world

The University of Calgary's Nathan Peters studies microbes that live inside immune cells that kill more than a million people each year. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Nathan Peters, right, with master's student Leah Hohman and Guido Van Marle, associate professor, Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Cumming School of Medicine.         

By Jennifer Allford, for the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

Researchers across campus are coming together to study a series of microbes that cause malaria and other deadly diseases. They want to better understand how the different organisms use a common process to infect a billion people in the developing world and kill more than a million people every year.

The long list of diseases also includes fungal meningitis, some forms of salmonella, tuberculosis and “a very common and widespread parasitic disease called Leishmaniasis,” says Nathan Peters, PhD, an assistant professor cross-appointed in the Cumming School of Medicine and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

While these diseases manifest themselves in different ways, the pathogens that cause them all use a common mechanism to evade the immune system. “The pathogens that cause these diseases actually live inside the cells of the immune system that are meant to eliminate them,” says Peters, a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and part of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases.

VPR grant enables research collaboration and field work in Ethiopia 

The researchers have received $200,000 from the vice-president (research) to build on the university’s relationships with Armauer Hansen Research Institute and Gondar University in Ethiopia. They’ll establish field sites and explore this set of “Trojan horse” pathogens that infect the cells that are supposed to get rid of them. “A lot of work has been done on these diseases but that hasn’t translated into improved clinical outcomes very well,” says Peters. “It’s a bit of a black hole.”

These pathogens may be “playing by a different set of rules” at the cellular level than those that can be treated or prevented by vaccines. “We are studying how these pathogens are invading the immune system and trying to identify common pathways by which they are achieving this,” says Peters. The researchers also want to identify ways to prevent or modulate the pathogens with drugs and or novel vaccination strategies.  Undertaking human field trials is critical to generating high-impact research and translating laboratory science into effective therapies.

The project, Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Intracellular Infectious Diseases (PT-CIIDs) Initiative, is one of 14 innovative and interdisciplinary projects to receive VPR funding. The project includes Drs. Chris Mody and Dylan Pillai, and Guido Van Marle, PhD, in the Cumming School of Medicine; and Lashitew Gedamu and Constance Finney, in the Faculty of Science.

'The burden of these diseases is quite high'

As well as causing more than a million deaths a year, these diseases have an enormous impact on the quality of life of millions more. “People may be up walking and talking but they are not functioning at 100 per cent. Kids are not learning everything that they could be. Adults are not doing as well as they could be. It’s hard to get a handle on that,” says Peters. 

Sick people are unlikely to achieve economic gains for themselves or their families, a reality which in turn has a detrimental effect on their developing country’s ability to participate in the global economy. “The burden of these diseases is quite high.”

This research addresses some of the critical challenges identified by the Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases Research Strategy. Funding for this project is from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Government of Alberta Economic Development and Trade, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.