An interview with Jason Carlyon, Ph.D., VCU School of Medicine

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Jason A. Carlyon, Ph.D., associate professor and a George and Lavinia Blick Scholar in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, is studying how bacteria transmitted by ticks and chiggers cause disease in humans.

In 2012, Carlyon was one of 25 faculty members to receive internal funding through the VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund award (PeRQ), formerly the Presidential Research Incentive Program. The program supports faculty researchers engaged in new, emerging or continuing research and helps to expand their scholarship and better position them for major external funding support.

Below he discusses his research and goals, what sparked his interest in the field, how the PeRQ award helped him further his research, and his advice to students interested in pursuing research.

What do you do?

Carlyon: I study a group of bacterial pathogens that must parasitize our blood vessels and white blood cells in order to survive and cause disease. In doing so, they essentially rewire how the invaded cells function.

Scrub typhus, which can be thought of as “the Rocky Mountain spotted fever of the Far East,” is one disease of focus in my lab. Scrub typhus, which is transmitted by chiggers, occurs in the Asia-Pacific region. Approximately 1 billion people are at risk and 1 million cases of the disease are reported each year. Marines stationed in Japan have been infected with the disease, and the endemic region extends into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After being inoculated by the chigger bite, the causative bacterium, Orientia tsutsugamushi, invades blood vessels and white blood cells. The disease is debilitating, leads to leakage of blood vessels and, if left unchecked, can cause death by systemic vascular collapse. Depending on the bacterial strain, scrub typhus has up to a 40 percent fatality rate. Better diagnostic assays and a vaccine that provides protection against scrub typhus are sorely needed.

What do you hope to learn through your research?

Carlyon: We are interested in the factors of the scrub typhus bacterium that are important for invading and surviving within human cells. In doing so, we hope to identify targets for preventing or treating this disease. There are many different scrub typhus bacterial strains, which, thus far, has hampered development of diagnostic assays or vaccines that detect or provide protection against all of them. We are very excited because we have identified a potential vaccine/diagnostic target that is conserved among more than 50 scrub typhus strains.

What drew you to research and why study this specific field?

Carlyon: I have always been interested in science and particularly love academic science because of the intellectual freedom it affords. As a Ph.D. student here at VCU, I studied Lyme disease with Dr. Rich Marconi (professor of microbiology and immunology in the VCU School of Medicine), which was my first introduction to pathogens that rapidly adapt between their arthropod vectors and human/animal hosts to survive in nature and cause disease. I was hooked. Afterwards, I chose to study scrub typhus (transmitted by chiggers) and anaplasmosis (transmitted by ticks). These bacteria have the added complexity in that they must live inside host cells – this makes studying them difficult. I like the challenge and the creativity that it demands.

Moving forward, where do you see your research field headed?

Carlyon: Developing technologies to genetically manipulate bacteria that are currently genetically intractable, such as those I study, is a hot topic in our field and one on which my lab is working. Also, for scrub typhus, development of effective diagnostic and vaccine technologies is a crucial area for study.

How did your 2012 VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund award help to further your research?

Carlyon: The PeRQ was invaluable because, although I had a proven track record studying a similar disease, I had never worked with scrub typhus. I needed the pilot funding to get my ideas off the ground and could not have done it without the PeRQ fund award. The preliminary data that we generated enabled me to secure three extramural grant awards – two from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and one from the American Heart Association (AHA). It also enabled my Ph.D. student, Lauren VieBrock, to successfully compete for an AHA pre-doctoral fellowship. In all, these awards provide a twelve-fold return on investment for VCU. That’s not too shabby.

What advice do you have for students looking to enter the research field?

Carlyon: Bring a high degree of enthusiasm and a strong work ethic, as you cannot succeed in science without either.


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