BU Today

Health & Wellness + Science & Tech

NEIDL, CAS Gain Expert in Insect-Borne Diseases

Research may limit virus transmission

Horacio Frydman, a molecular biologist whose research may lead to new ways to stop insect-borne disease transmission, has been appointed an investigator at Boston University Medical Center’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), currently under construction on the Medical Campus. Frydman’s research focuses on the Wolbachia bacteria, which grow inside the cells of many insects and in parasitic worms known as nematodes (roundworms).

“Over one third of all humans, mainly in developing countries, carry a nematode infection,” says Frydman, who joined BU in September. “Parasitic worms can cause chronic debilitating infections that are often difficult to treat, such as elephantiasis and river blindness. Despite the high cost to human health, there have been limited treatments available for these diseases. However, recent remarkable clinical research indicates that a simple antibiotic that kills the Wolbachia bacteria inside the parasite leads to long-lasting eradication of the parasitic infection in the human host.”

Wolbachia is considered among the most abundant intracellular bacteria on earth, infecting up to 70 percent of insects, including fruit flies and mosquitoes. Frydman’s research has shown that when injected into an uninfected fruit fly host, Wolbachia targets the stem cell niche region of the ovary, from where it can then infect flies generation after generation. 

Frydman, who is also a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of biology, will develop an independent research program at the NEIDL to study how Wolbachia infects mosquitoes, which transmit many human pathogens. Further investigation of such transmission routes could lead to information about the evolution, ecology, and biology of this host-bacteria interaction, as well as possible biological strategies for controlling vector-transmitted infectious diseases.

“Dr. Frydman is one of the few scientists studying ways to interrupt vector-borne disease transmission,” says Mark Klempner, NEIDL director and Medical Campus associate provost for research. “He made the important discovery that Wolbachia has a symbiotic relationship with embryonic stem cells in fruit flies. This means that all the cells that turn into the whole fly have had contact with the bacteria, since they all come from those stem cells. Scientists believe the same thing happens in mosquitoes and ticks. Dr. Frydman’s work has important implications for potential ways to make these vectors incapable of transmitting infectious diseases by biologically manipulating this relationship.”

The NEIDL is being built by the BU Medical Center with a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Researchers will study dangerous infectious diseases — whether they occur naturally or are introduced through bioterrorism — and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines. Construction of the facility is scheduled to be completed in 2008.

Frydman came to BU from Princeton University, where he was a research scholar in the molecular biology department. Before that he was a research associate at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He earned a Ph.D. in genetics and developmental biology from Johns Hopkins University and a B.S. and an M.Sc. from the University of São Paulo, in Brazil.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.