Foundation Supports New Work on Brain-eating Amoeba


Evolutionary cell biologist Lillian Fritz-Laylin, biology, recently was granted a three-year, $300,000 Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research to support her research on the pathogenesis of the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri. The amoeba gets inside swimmers’ noses, crawls up the olfactory nerve and into the brain where they destroy tissue.

As she explains, “Although this amoeba has killed 95% of the people it’s infected, we know almost nothing about it.” She and colleagues use the non-pathogenic sister species Naegleria gruberi as a practical and safe study organism for understanding the basic biology of these species, in particular, how the cells move.

Fritz-Laylin adds, “There are a lot of species of Naegleria, but only one causes disease, so there has been a lot of focus on that, but when treating the disease what really matters is how to kill Naegleria without hurting our own cells. We’ll be looking into ways to do that. Our human cells use two different polymer systems to move, but these amoeba use only one of them, so that difference could be a target for treatment.”

Katrina Velle, a postdoctoral researcher in the Fritz-Laylin lab ­– one of the few to study this organism, she notes – will continue to lead the project and conduct much of the planned experimental and genomic work. Using gene manipulation, genomics techniques, treatment with various compounds and inhibitors, they will study how the organisms move, eat, divide and maintain their water balance.

“We might be able to interrupt any one of these systems to kill them without hurting the person infected,” Fritz-Laylin points out.

Much of her research has been focused on the evolution of cell movement, she notes, explaining that humans and Naeglaria shared a common ancestor about 1.2 billion years ago. The amoeba, which can either crawl or swim at different life cycle stages, evolved movement that looks similar to that of human white blood cells, but the underlying systems are very different; similar functions evolved along different pathways.

Human white blood cells are immune system scavengers that rove through the bloodstream eating invading pathogens. Fritz-Laylin explains, “They eat bacteria, so they crawl around to hunt them. If you look in a microscope, Naeglaria move like our white blood cells but they achieve that movement differently.”

For 28 years, the Smith Family Foundation has supported full-time faculty biomedical researchers at nonprofit academic, medical or research institutions in Massachusetts, at Brown University or at Yale University. Its mission is “to launch the careers of newly independent biomedical researchers with the ultimate goal of achieving medical breakthroughs.”