Through a microscope, Courtney Fant eyes hundreds of cells wiggling, dividing, and multiplying. Found in tsetse flies in Sub-Saharan Africa, the cells are a type of parasite that, in a human, would result in the often-deadly African sleeping sickness.

But in Clemson University’s Eukaryotic Pathogens Innovation Center (EPIC) lab, it won’t take long before the cells multiply in a sealed container until they become overcrowded and die.

Fant, along with four other medical students with the University of South Carolina, is researching fungal and parasitic eukaryotic pathogens — organisms that cause African sleeping sickness, fungal meningitis, toxoplasmosis, and amoebic dysentery, among other illnesses.

Clemson secured the research training grant from the National Institutes of Health specifically for its in-state rival — the University of South Carolina.

University of South Carolina School of Medicine student Courtney Fant studies eukaryotic pathogens through a microscope. Photo by Will Crooks.

Kerry Smith, director of Clemson’s EPIC, said Clemson is an academic and research partner with Prisma Health, which also partners with the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine in Greenville.

“For us, this was always about providing opportunities for the University of S.C. Greenville medical students. Clemson University doesn’t have a medical school, and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville is a relatively very new medical school that doesn’t have those kind of wet lab opportunities for the medical students,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, it’s what we do at a university — train.”

Research on eukaryotic pathogens is critical because the illnesses they cause are harder to treat than typical viruses or infections — eukaryotic pathogens closely mirror the cells in a human body, making it difficult to stop the processes in the invasive cell without harming regular cells.

“When you’re designing an antibiotic for bacteria — that would be something that would kill the bacteria — the processes that go on in the bacteria are very different than the processes that go on inside our cells. So, at least on paper, it’s relatively easy to target a process and bacteria, design an antibiotic that will stop that process, and it will very unlikely have any kind of effect on us,” Smith said. “One of the differences in working with eukaryotic pathogens in designing anti-parasitic drugs and anti-fungal drugs is because these processes are so much the same, you have to find something that will block the process and the pathogen and not affect us.”

For medical school students, the research experience can help them gain a deeper understanding of the root cause of illnesses they could encounter in practice one day, as well as show them a potential career path toward being a practicing doctor and researcher.

Fant plans to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology and do some work in countries with fewer health care options.

“That is what actually piqued my interest,” Fant said. “What I’m looking at is fatty acid uptake with ATP depletion — and that’s just a specific component of trying to figure out ways to decrease the amount of transmission [of African sleeping sickness].”

University of South Carolina School of Medicine students use a Clemson University lab to study eukaryotic pathogens. Photo by Will Crooks.

There are treatments for African sleeping sickness, but no cure. If left untreated, African sleeping sickness can be fatal — symptoms include fever, severe headaches, fatigue, irritability, and aching muscles and joints.

Fant, who is starting her second year of medical school in the fall, said her only prior knowledge of pathogens was from a cell and microbiology class she took.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot — one thing is experiments never work out the way you want them to, and you just have to come up with different ways to go around it,” Fant said.

The NIH grant will last for five years, and Smith said Clemson will continue to offer an eight-week research program for students at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville each summer throughout the life of the grant.

“Part of the goal of that grant and the goal of the center is to grow the center — we’ve trained undergraduate students, we’ve trained graduate students, we’ve trained post-doctoral graduates, and it seemed a natural fit to also train medical students,” Smith said. “Working in a center that is a biomedical research center, any opportunities we can have to partner with a medical school seem natural to us.”

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