WPI Student's Monkey Research Could Have Implications for AIDS Patients, Others

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WORCESTER, Mass.-A study by a WPI senior who plans a career in veterinary medicine has led to the discovery that an opportunistic pathogen that is often a complication after the onset of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is actually present in the body beforehand and may represent a common parasite of healthy humans as well as several species of macaque monkeys.

This startling conclusion of research recently completed by Daniel R. Hebert of Dennisport, Mass., could have a major impact on the treatment of AIDS patients and others whose immune systems are compromised by illness. Hebert, a biotechnology major who was recently accepted to Tufts University's School of Veterinary Medicine, investigated the presence of microsporidia in the macaque colony at the New England Regional Primate Research Center in Southborough, Mass.

Microsporidia are parasites that exist as latent spores until they infect a host cell, usually within the ocular, pulmonary, muscular and intestinal systems. One species, Enterocytozoon bieneusi, is the major cause of chronic diarrhea and inflammation of the bile ducts and gall bladder in individuals with AIDS and other immuno-suppressed patients.

For his Major Qualifying Project, a WPI degree requirement, Hebert worked with Keith G. Mansfield, D.V.M., who had previously used new molecular diagnostic techniques to locate the parasite within the macaque colony. His faculty advisor was Daniel G. Gibson, assistant professor of biology and biotechnology. Hebert, the first WPI student to complete an entire project at the primate center, was one of two students to receive a Provost's MQP Award from the Biology and Biotechnology Department and his work has been nominated for the university's Sigma Xi Research Award. "This really is a breakthrough in gastrointestinal medicine, as well as AIDS research," says Gibson. "It identifies a chronic parasite that may be the actual cause of many unexplained cases of gastritis, enteritis, chronic diarrhea, and other digestive problems. Here is a pathogen that can wreak havoc on the intestines, but is seldom detected because it resides elsewhere-in the ducts of the liver. This is as big as the discovery that many ulcers are caused by a bacterium, helicobacter pylori, rather than by hypersecretion of stomach acid."

Hebert used a technique called Southern blotting to detect the presence of microsporidia. The procedure involved immobilizing DNA to detect certain sequences then transferring it from a gel medium to a nylon membrane, which was then exposed to a nucleic acid probe for E.-bieneusi. Hebert was able to identify the parasite in 22 out of 145 normal rhesus macaques and 15 of 42 macaques infected with Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. Once the positive animals were identified, bile and tissue samples were taken to study the location of infection. Persistence studies indicated that the parasite lived for 7-11 months; prior to this study there had been no indication that microsporidians were chronic inhabitants of healthy animals.

"Daniel's contribution to our research effort to elucidate and characterize the pathogenesis of E. bieneusi in rhesus macaques has proven invaluable to the progress of the study," says Mansfield. "In addition, his work here will ease the understanding of E. bieneusi in humans and eventually add to efforts to prevent and treat the debilitating condition in AIDS patients caused by this parasite."

"In the future, new steps in AIDS treatment could include screening for E. bieneusi at the onset of HIV infection," says Hebert. "Once an effective cure for the parasite can be found, it can be administered to these patients and prevent much of the discomfort and disease that AIDS patients experience toward the end of their illness."

The Major Qualifying Project (MQP) is one of three projects all undergraduates at WPI undertake as part of the innovative WPI Plan, a flexible, exciting and academically challenging program introduced in 1971. Under the Plan, students are provided with unique opportunities for integrating classroom studies with preprofessional academic projects conducted on campus or at companies, agencies and project sites in the U.S. and abroad. Through the MQP, students solve real-life problems in their major field of study. The goals of the MQP include the development of creativity, self-confidence, and the ability to communicate ideas.

The New England Regional Primate Research Center, which opened in 1966, is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. It is part of the Regional Primate Research Centers Program established by Congress in 1959. The mission of these centers is to conduct basic and applied biomedical research aimed at solving human health and societal problems.

Hebert, son of Raymond and Donna Hebert of Dennisport, Mass., received his bachelor's degree in biotechnology in May and expects to complete his D.V.M. in 2001. He is a member of Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society and Mu Sigma Delta Pre-Health Society. He has been active in Greek life at WPI(as president of the Interfraternity Council during his junior year and in several positions within Alpha Tau Omega fraternity throughout his years at WPI. He was a member of the Concert Band and Wind Ensemble and is a former president of the Symphonic Council and was a member of the Bio Club and the Order of Omega, the national Greek honor society.