Reporting from The British Society for Parasitology (BSP) meeting in Prague

As a molecular biologist, I spend a lot of time in a laboratory - designing and performing experiments, analysing data and writing up my findings. However, this takes time (sometimes years!) before the rest of the scientific community can see the final results published in a paper. Attending a scientific meeting is therefore a good way of letting people know about ongoing but incomplete investigations, not least because the rest of the community might provide guidance about your research, or even offer to help.

Since the 1960’s, the British Society for Parasitology (the BSP) has been supporting research in the parasitology field; from those of us working on single-cell parasites such as trypanosomes (the causative agents of Human African Sleeping Sickness) to researchers studying larger, multi-cellular organisms such as the parasitic worm Ascaris (which lives in the gut of humans and is responsible for the disease ascariasis).

With such diversity, BSP meetings are never dull!

Every two years, the BSP organises a special Trypanosomaisis and Leishmaniasis Seminar to highlight current research on these neglected tropical diseases. This year the meeting was hosted by the Institute of Parasitology, at the Biology Centre in České Budějovice in the Czech Republic. At the heart of the organisation was the enthusiastic Professor Julius Lukeš (Laboratory of molecular biology of Protists, Institute of Parasitology, České Budějovice), to whom we all owe great thanks.

Lasting from the 4th to the 7th of September, the meeting was packed with a variety of exciting talks and vibrant posters, allowing researchers at all stages in their careers to showcase their data. A broad range of topics was covered, from core molecular and cellular biology, to drug discovery and parasite-host interactions. It is impossible to mention all the work that was presented, but a few findings illustrate that we still have much to learn. Recently it has been discovered that trypanosomes reside in two unexpected mammalian tissues: adipose and skin, potentially highlighting reservoirs of the disease.

trypanosomeThe discovery of skin parasites (presented by Annette MacLeod, WCMP) may also influence how cases of this deadly disease are monitored and recorded in the field. A number of talks focused on the mitochondrion, which acts as the ‘battery’ of the cell, revealing new factors needed for maintenance of the genome (Priscilla Pena-Diaz, from the host institute) and how, remarkably, trypanosomes can live without this genome (Caroline Dewar, University of Edinburgh). Martin Taylor (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) clarified the growing data on the enormously complex processes trypanosomes use to get hold of (and hold onto) iron, which is needed for many cell reactions. A bold new project, known as ‘TrypTag’, was presented by Jack Sunter, Richard Wheeler and Sam Dean (University of Oxford), who aim to determine the location of all proteins in the trypanosome parasite. To do this, a small fluorescent ‘tag’ (which essentially acts as a biological signal beacon) is being systematically added to all trypanosome proteins (around 7000!).  As the tag is fused to the protein, wherever the tag is seen in the parasite cell (using a fluorescent microscope) reveals the location of the protein and may provide clues about function, adding to the small proportion of trypanosome proteins with known activities. The results of this project are already being made available to the community, making it a valuable resource for everyone to use.

WCMP had a strong presence at the meeting, not only due to the attendance of present members, but also valued WCMP alumni. At the meeting, I was given the opportunity to present data from my PhD as a poster. I really enjoyed sharing what I had accomplished during my PhD and the feedback I received was invaluable.‌

Throughout the meeting we were also encouraged to network and socialise with other members of the community. We were ‘wined and dined’ at a spectacular castle, serenaded by beautiful classical music played by a live orchestra (!) and then treated to an evening of jazz and dancing.

In addition to the research presentations and the networking opportunities, a short tribute to the late Keith Vickerman (Honorary Professor, Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, University of Glasgow) was made by Keith Gull (University of Oxford). Professor Vickerman is known for his pioneering research into the trypanosome’s ability to evade the host immune system through expression of an ever-changing protective protein coat. Being reminded of how far the field has come since his work really highlighted the success of societies, such as the BSP, and funding agencies at communicating and supporting research into trypanosomaisis and other neglected diseases.‌‌ Despite how far we have come, and as the community now strive towards meeting the WHO target to eliminate trypanosomiasis and leishmaisis by 2020, new work on the protective coat and related proteins presented by, amongst others, Matt Higgins and Thomas Bartossek (Universities of Oxford and Wurzburg) reminded me that there is still much to understand about these parasites.

 

By Jennifer Ann Stortz (Post-doc, McCulloch Lab) and Richard McCulloch (University of Glasgow)

(Photograph credit: Tansy Hammarton [top image] and Leandro Lemgruber [micrograph of trypanosome])


First published: 10 January 2017