IC Professor, Students Tackle Infectious Disease with New NIH Grant

By Todd McLeish ’84, November 26, 2019
Students gain valuable hands-on experience in new lab.

A new biological safety lab constructed in the Ithaca College Center for Natural Sciences is enabling Associate Professor David Gondek and his students to conduct research on a dangerous group of infectious diseases, a project that may lead to a vaccine. The lab, funded in part with a $360,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, is outfitted with isolation cages for mice and special filters for bacterial containment.

“We’re studying an important family of bacteria that share a special apparatus – like a molecular hypodermic needle – that injects bacterial proteins across a host cell’s membrane,” said Gondek. “These bacterial virulence factors induce a hostile takeover of the cell, shutting down certain activities and upregulating other things to keep the host cell alive.”

The mechanism for taking over the cell is shared by many kinds of deadly bacteria, from E. coli and Salmonella to the Black Plague. Gondek is using the sexually transmitted disease Chlamydia, which uses the same mechanism, as a model for his research.

Chlamydia is the number one bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the U.S.,” he said. “The pathogen is experiencing a steady resurgence, with increasing numbers of cases reported each year. This same pathogen can also cause an eye infection, and in the developing world, it’s the leading cause of preventable blindness.”

“The students drive the train here. I mentor them in how to do things and walk them through the data analysis, but at the end of the day, they are hands-on doing all the work.”

Associate Professor David Gondek

Gondek’s research is focused on the role of the microbiome in the relationship between the host and the pathogen. Previous research found that the microbes already present on body surfaces will change how the immune system responds to infection. And since Chlamydia can infect at both genital-urinary and gastrointestinal tissues, he is conducting experiments to examine immunity at both sites.

“With these data we can determine where and how best to vaccinate, inducing an immune response to provide protection from infection without pathology,” he said.

By using antibiotics to manipulate the microbiome of a mouse, and then infecting the mouse with Chlamydia, Gondek is assessing how the changed microbiome affects the pathogen’s ability to spread and how it affects the mouse’s immune response.

The work is being conducted by Ithaca College undergraduate students.

“The students drive the train here,” Gondek said. “I mentor them in how to do things and walk them through the data analysis, but at the end of the day, they are hands-on doing all the work. It’s a wonderful learning opportunity for them to participate in a high-quality research project and conduct a series of experiments while learning all kinds of different lab techniques. This experience makes them highly-trained for jobs after graduation.”

The students are using several state-of-the-art laboratory instruments – what Gondek called “the big tool bag” – including a flow cytometer, newly purchased with funds from the recent grant, to track and monitor immune response, and a gas chromatograph coupled with a mass spectrometer to separate, identify and quantify microbial compounds. To understand the complexity of the microbiome, students also learn coding skills and use bioinformatics tools.

Each experiment takes about 12 weeks to conduct, and the first was completed by the end of last summer. At least three more are planned during the coming school year.

“It’s going amazingly well so far,” said Gondek. “This fall I've been integrating my class and research to get as many students involved as possible.”