Anthony Arnone | October 31, 2022

Awakening a Cure for African Sleeping Sickness

Student aids professor’s research to find a breakthrough to combat a deadly disease.
Sevinch performing a test in the research lab

Professor of Biology Michel Pelletier’s lab is trying to find a cure for African Sleeping Sickness, a disease that enters the blood and lymphatic system through the tsetse fly and invades the central nervous system. 

“After the infection invades the central nervous system in the second stage, progressive confusion, personality changes, and other neurologic problems occur,” Pelletier said. “If left untreated, the illness becomes worse, and death will occur within months.”

Michel Pelletier

Michel Pelletier

At this time, there is no vaccine available and the parasites are slowly becoming resistant to the drugs currently used for treatment. That is what Pelletier’s research hopes to solve – with help from biology and neuroscience double major Sevinch Fayzullayeva.

Fayzullayeva joined Pelletier’s lab in the Fall 2021 semester. Her research continued through the summer and became a paid position thanks to a fellowship provided by Pelletier’s National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. Her role is to help find the effect that arginine methylation has on enzyme activity on protein TbLpn.

“Mutants of TbLpn are created and the methylated arginines will switch lysines. These mutants will then be transfected into the protozoa Trypanosoma brucei cells,” said Fayzullayeva. “We are concerned with the effect of lack of methylation on the arginine residue will have on cell growth, phospholipid synthesis, and morphology.”

Fayzullayeva planned to develop her research skills heading into her junior year. Having spent nearly two years taking courses remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she knew that her skills in the lab needed to be refined before graduating. After speaking with Pelletier, she was convinced the research in his lab would not only help her as a professional – but might make a difference for those in need.

“Before this I had never stepped foot into a research lab,” Fayzullayeva said. “I learned a lot of new skills every day. I would do DNA cloning, protein expression and purification on a day-to-day basis.”

“Before this I had never stepped foot into a research lab. I learned a lot of new skills every day.”
Sevinch Fayzullayeva

Pelletier’s lab is studying the protein involved in phospholipid synthesis. Phospholipids are the major component of cell membranes and are required for cell survival and development. They are specifically interested in learning how this protein is modified after it is synthesized, and what are the effects of these modifications on its activity and on the ability of Trypanosoma brucei to survive and establish infections.

Eventually, they hope that the new protein may become a target for a new drug that can help people suffering from the disease. Fayzullayeva’s assistance has been instrumental in the research and Pelletier plans to feature some of her work in his upcoming manuscript.

“Sevinch has surpassed the goals we set at the beginning of her research and I am very impressed by her intelligence and enthusiasm,” Pelletier said. “She is committed to becoming a health professional, and I strongly believe she possesses all the attributes and qualifications to reach her goal.”

Fayzullayeva is currently taking a break from the research this semester, but often visits the lab to keep up with recent updates and breakthroughs. She will officially resume her research next semester, and hopefully, beyond.

I never thought I would be interested in this part of the field, but now I am looking into master’s programs because I want to continue researching.
Sevinch Fayzullayeva