DHS student-faculty research team investigates bacterium that may be linked to Crohn's disease

La'Cheyla Blount, Dr. Carleitta Paige-Anderson and Ashley Green

Her assignment may have changed, but Dr. Carleitta Paige-Anderson is no stranger to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Education Programs administered by ORAU through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education (ORISE), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Institute.

Paige-Anderson once served as a DHS Fellow while completing her doctoral degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at Wake Forest University, but now she acts as a team leader for the 10-week U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team Program for Minority-Serving Institutions.

Over the course of a summer, she guided Ashley Green and La’Cheyla Blount, two of her junior year biology students from Virginia Union University (VUU), through the finer points of conducting research in a real-world laboratory setting at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

The University of Minnesota is one of several universities, private industry and governmental organizations comprising the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD), a DHS Center for Excellence. Under the leadership of the University of Minnesota, NCFPD conducts research and education programs aimed at reducing the potential for food contamination at any point along the food supply chain and mitigating the effects of intentional contamination by biological or chemical agents.

The DHS Summer Research Team Program pairs a research team, consisting of a professor and one or two students, from a minority serving institution with an established investigator at a DHS Center of Excellence, Paige-Anderson explained. In collaboration with University of Minnesota researcher Dr. Sri Sreevatan, the visiting research team investigated the molecular mechanisms of Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP), a bacterial pathogen that infects cattle, through conducting laboratory experiments and reading scientific literature related to the pathogen.

“MAP causes Johne’s disease in certain animals, such as cattle, and has proven it can survive pasteurization, which means humans can be exposed to these bacteria from consuming MAP-contaminated dairy products,” Blount explained. “Our efforts may help identify therapeutic targets to create vaccines to prevent the disease, which would ensure the nation's dairy cattle farms are protected from mass contamination.”

Even more detrimental than Johne’s disease, some research also suggests that MAP could contribute to Crohn’s disease in humans. Paige-Anderson thinks that by understanding this bacterial infection in cattle, we may gain insight into potential therapeutic treatments for Crohn's disease patients.

“I had no knowledge about MAP, its potential effect on the dairy industry, or its possible role in Crohn’s disease," Blount said. “As a student with future goals in research, this experience has allowed me to conduct and increase my understanding of research while becoming familiar with laboratory research fundamentals.”

Through this program, the students are not only gaining hands-on experience conducting research, they are also learning about best practices from their DHS collaborators: Srinand Sreevatan and Abbey Nutsch.

“Being in the lab conducting research is really the best part,” Green said. “I have been able to actively engage in research, specifically studying pathogenic mycobacteria, an experience that will be helpful when I pursue graduate degrees studying cancer. I’ve learned a lot about how to be safe in the lab by interacting with the post-doctoral researchers and other lab colleagues that have so much experience.”

While the students gained hands-on laboratory experience, Paige-Anderson enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing her passion for research come to life.

“It is critical that undergraduate students are afforded the opportunity to conduct basic science research,” Paige-Anderson said. “This program facilitates the learning environment in the lab and transitions into the academic year research we conduct at VUU. My experience teaching students with a range of skillsets suggests that students who are able to relate research topics to their personal interests are more likely to engage.”