Emily Bick '13 has conducted research on nemotodes and the immunological implications of two of their proteins since her freshman year.
Emily Bick ’13, entomology, eagerly jumped into a research job her first semester at Cornell. Now, three years later, she’s still studying Trichinella spiralis, a nematode (roundworm) commonly found in uncooked meat. As a presidential research scholar in Judy Appleton’s lab at the Baker Institute for Animal Health, Bick looks at two specific surface proteins on Trichinella, the responses they produce in the body, and their potential immunological implications.
After being consumed by its host, Trichinella embeds itself in gut cells until it receives a signal to move to the muscle cells of the organism it inhabits. “That initial interaction between the muscle cells and Trichinella suppresses the immune system’s response,” Bick said. The proteins may be the keys to selectively suppressing the immune system for medical applications.
The first part of her research was finding and chemically isolating the immune system-suppressing proteins she was interested — a task that took about two years. Recently she sent the first of her protein samples off to a lab to be translated into a nucleotide sequence that she can use to further determine their exact function.
“Once I have the sequence I just start blasting it through the database,” Bick said, “You figure out what other proteins this is similar to and what the functions of those proteins are, and from that we can make educated guesses on what the function of this protein is.”
Once she receives the complete sequences, Bick plans to use online genetics databases to look for similar proteins present in other nematodes as well as in insects. She aims to see if any other species contain a protein sequence similar to Trichinella’s that could also have similar functions. Once Bick has determined the function of the proteins, she can start testing the potential medical applications of proteins that can selectively suppress the immune system.
Bick said that she has stuck with the same research project for so long because of the potential medical uses of the Trichinella spiralis’ surface proteins. The proteins may allow medical devices which, normally elicit adverse immune responses when placed in the body to stay in place without creating ill effects within the patient and without the patient needing immunosuppressants. The ability to selectively suppress the immune system would be useful for procedures in which a foreign object must be implanted into the body long-term, like a heart stent, Bick said.