By: Milady Nazir
Althea Campuzano has spent her entire collegiate career at UTSA. As an undergraduate, she conducted research alongside Janakiram Seshu, who encouraged her to work on Lyme disease. Due to her interest in mycology, the study of fungi, she decided to continue at UTSA and she gained admission to the highly competitive Cell and Molecular Biology doctoral program. Under the direction of her new mentor, Floyd Wormley, Campuzano focused on how hosts recognize the invading fungal pathogen, Cryptocococcus spp., which is present in the environment.
Once she completed her Ph.D. work in 2018, she opted to deepen her UTSA roots by working on post-doctoral research in Chiung-Yu Hung’s laboratory. There she works to develop a vaccine for a fungus, Coccidioides, that causes Valley Fever, a rare disease called by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the “silent epidemic. Valley Fever can cause flu-like symptoms, which may become deadly and spread from the lungs to the skin, bone and central nervous system.
At just 29 years old, Campuzano works in a field where very few vaccines are developed to tackle exotic diseases caused by fungi. Recently, she was elected to be co-chair for the Gordon Research Seminar in Medical Mycology, a prestigious international scientific gathering which covers topics on frontier research.
We interviewed Campuzano about why she chose to work in the field of niche diseases.
You work on Valley Fever, one of new diseases that only occurs in North and South America. Why is this important to study?
Valley fever is on the rise and was recently highlighted in the press. When there’s a disturbance of the soil (i.e., construction, dust storms, outdoor activities), we can become exposed by inhaling the spores found on the ground. People in endemic areas may develop flu-like symptoms that can clear on their own, but others are unable to improve leading to possible meningitis and lung failure. Other patients who recover must be treated with antifungals for the rest of their lives. We do know that some factors leading to severe cases include race, particularly African American, Filipino and Hispanic males. These observations were seen in military personnel stationed in the southwest of the U.S. Additionally, pregnant women, HIV patients or immunocompromised individuals can be susceptible to Valley Fever. Many symptoms are similar to the flu and can go unnoticed making it important to develop effective methods to diagnose and vaccinate individuals.
Most vaccines are developed to tackle bacteria and viruses but you focus on fungi. Why is this work difficult?
Unlike bacteria and viruses, fungi are very similar to us as they are eukaryotes, organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within membranes. Finding unique differences between us and fungi can be challenging, and without finding those differences, vaccines or drugs can cause adverse effects. To make things more challenging, we don’t fully understand how this fungus interacts with us. Currently there are no approved vaccines available against any fungal infections, and this is a concern as we are able to treat and prevent bacterial and viral infections while fungal infections continue to rise. Our goal is to develop a vaccine that is safe and specifically target the pathogenic fungi without adverse effects to people or fungi found in your normal flora.
Another challenge is that there are not as many people studying in our field, which makes collaboration and sharing information even more critical. I hope to raise awareness about fungal infections so that we can have effective vaccines and improved therapeutic treatments against fungal infections in the near future.
Where are you in terms of finding a cure for Valley Fever?
We are a long way from a cure, however we are taking the necessary steps to finding a cure with a two-pronged approach: drug and vaccine development. Our group has created a subunit vaccine that is as effective as the former live attenuated vaccine. Our vaccine is currently 80 percent efficient in transgenic mice. We are also testing it on cells from human subjects, and we are working on the next version of our vaccine. We are improving the components of our subunit vaccines so that it improves protections and follows good manufacturing practices, thereby advancing our vaccine.
Vaccine development can take decades. How do you stay motivated?
Knowing that there are no vaccines available is a real motivating factor in my field. When we attend conferences and seminars, we often hear about the how devastating fungal infections can be to patients. This also pushes us to collaborate with others so that we can expedite our vaccine development. It is especially helpful that my mentor, Dr. Hung, and other mycologists are very passionate about the work.
Last year you won recognition at the Seventh Annual San Antonio Vaccine Conference where government and industry decision makers gathered. They even asked tough questions about how you approach your work. Tell me how that experience has helped you grow.
Part of my training in the Cell and Molecular Biology doctoral program is to think critically, read and learn from the latest research on my field and conduct experiments. All of this training allowed me to answer the tough questions. I also had the privilege to share my work with the public thanks to the UTSA RISE Ph.D. program, the Department of Biology and my research mentors.
Tell me about the Gordon conference. It’s a major gathering of cutting-edge work advancing science. How did you get approached about becoming Co-Chair?
I shared the work done by Dr. Hung’s lab and unexpectedly approached by the former chairs after my presentation. It was very exciting to be elected by my peers to co-chair the Gordon Research Seminar. This is one of several prestigious international conferences that discusses the latest science in medical mycology. At UTSA, we have a core of leading experts in this field that are also members of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. By attending prestigious conferences like the Gordon Research Seminar, we will have the opportunity to highlight the cutting-edge work conducted by UTSA faculty.