Mining vector genomes to improve global health

Catherine Hill Spotlight for Faculty

Catherine Hill

04/22/2016 |

Purdue medical entomologist Cate Hill spent her youth in Adelaide, Australia, plucking hairy caterpillars off mulberry bushes, fashioning homemade terrariums, and scrutinizing huntsman spiders.

“I couldn’t have cared less about butterflies,” she says. “It was always the insects or arthropods that were a bit scary that fascinated me.”

Her lifelong zeal for bugs led her to research some of the most despised—ticks, mosquitoes, and lice—and the ways they can damage human health and cause disease.

In February, an international team of nearly 100 scientists led by Hill unleashed seven papers on tick genomics, including the first complete genome sequence. The publications are the culmination of a decade-long effort to equip scientists with desperately-needed tools and resources to advance the study of ticks and tick-borne diseases.

“The genome provides a foundation for a whole new era in tick research,” says Hill, principal investigator of the genome team and Showalter Faculty Scholar. “Now we’ve got the script to help us work out what proteins the tick is making, what these proteins do and whether we can exploit them.”

With the genetic code in hand, researchers can start pinpointing answers and developing ways to disrupt ticks’ ability to trigger illnesses or allergies. Hill is also eager to comb the genome for tick-specific targets for new pesticides.

She has already pioneered a parallel process of matching pesticides with genetics in medically-important mosquitoes by identifying molecules that are key to their survival and then designing insecticides to disrupt those molecules.

These new chemicals are designed to zero in on specific arthropod species, unlike broadly-toxic conventional insecticides, and are effective in much smaller amounts, minimizing damage to the environment.

“What we’re creating are designer drugs: precise, lethal medications for ticks and mosquitoes,” Hill says.

She feels a sense of urgency in her quest to develop new, safer pesticides. Vector control is one the best methods of tamping down re-emerging diseases such as Zika, West Nile virus and dengue. But indiscriminate use of conventional pesticides and antibiotics has set us up for a new era of disease, she says.

Hill sees a need for a revolution in how we approach drug and pesticide development and disease preparedness. It is a vision she will tackle as she joins the Purdue Institute for Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Diseases (PI4D). PI4D will unite scientists from multiple fields to work on disease issues, making links between disease agents and the body’s response.

“We’re realizing that there is much more to be learned about the interconnections between infection, immunity and allergic response or inflammation,” Hill says. “In order to better understand disease states, we need to be studying all these things collectively.”

– Natalie Van Hoose
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