With Researcher Spotlights, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Sumiti Vinayak, PhD
Department of Pathobiology
College of Veterinary Medicine
Dr. Sumiti Vinayak is an associate professor of parasitology in the Department of Pathobiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine. She received her PhD from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and completed postdoctoral training at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases at the University of Georgia. Research in the Vinayak Lab is focused on the protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium parvum, a leading cause of diarrheal disease and mortality in young children and ruminant livestock. They use a combination of molecular genetics, cellular biology, and animal infection models to study parasite biology and identify new targets for the development of effective therapies against cryptosporidiosis. The three main research focus areas are unraveling signaling mechanisms that regulates proliferation and development of Cryptosporidium, identifying and genetically validating new anti-cryptosporidial drug targets, and developing new genetic tools to study parasite gene function.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
It is hard to pinpoint the exact time when I got interested in parasitology. I would say it all started with this engaging class on parasites during my undergraduate course. But this interest kept growing because of amazing mentors who have been instrumental in instilling a passion for studying parasites. During my Master’s and PhD, I worked on identifying novel drug targets and tracking anti-malarial drug resistance in the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. I later moved on to studying the biology of Toxoplasma and Cryptosporidium, two protozoan parasites that are closely related to the malaria parasite. Among these parasites, I would admit that Cryptosporidium has been a 'tough cookie' to crack, but we have made big strides towards unraveling the mysteries of this deadly parasite. When I started working on Cryptosporidium, there were no methods available to culture it in the laboratory, no small animal infection model available, and most importantly, no genetics available. Over the years, we have developed CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing tools to study parasite gene function and animal infection models to propagate transgenic parasites.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
My laboratory utilizes a combination of molecular genetics and cellular biology approaches to study the intestinal parasite Cryptosporidium parvum, that infects both animals and humans. Cryptosporidium is the second leading global cause after Rotavirus of diarrheal disease and mortality in infants and malnourished children. Besides being a pediatric and HIV/AIDS associated opportunistic pathogen, C. parvum is a very important veterinary parasite that commonly causes diarrhea in young ruminants such as neonatal calves. The burden of this disease is enormous since there is no effective drug and no vaccines available to treat and prevent cryptosporidiosis in humans and animals. Our research on understanding molecular mechanisms that drive the life cycle of Cryptosporidium is allowing us to identify new targets for drug and vaccine development. Moreover, we have also identified several new anti-cryptosporidial compounds through drug screening and animal models that are highly effective in killing this parasite (Manjunatha, Vinayak et al. 2017; Vinayak et al. 2020; Nava et al. 2022). Ultimately, the development of these much-needed drugs and vaccines will reduce the public health burden of this important diarrheal disease.
What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing current local, national, and/or global challenges?
I strongly believe that researchers can (and are) playing a very important role in communicating science to the public. We have seen this with the COVID-19 pandemic, where scientists from so many fields came together to explain the infection, disease burden, and advantages of vaccination. As researchers, we all work on complex things in our own area, but also have this ability to explain science in simple language to people outside the lab. Enhancing public scientific temperament would aid in resolving many critical issues in the society. In addition to explaining and advocating science to the general audience, we can play critical roles in inculcating a love for science among the next generation of students and engaging them in research early on.
Part of MSI’s mission is to support high quality education and professional development experiences for trainees. How do you support this mission through your teaching and mentorship?
I am very passionate about teaching and training the next generation of researchers. I teach parasitology to second year DVM students and mentor students in my laboratory. My goal is to provide a safe, inclusive, and nurturing environment where the students can develop their own ideas and work alongside each together as a team. It is gratifying to see my students succeeding and achieving their professional goals.
How does being part of the microbial systems community (MSI) impact your research?
Thank you for including me in the MSI community. It feels great to be a part of this big interdisciplinary community of researchers working on different aspects of microbes. This will allow me to foster new collaborations and develop new and creative ideas that will enhance my research.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
This is a very exciting time for my laboratory. We are super excited about our ongoing work on understanding the molecular signaling mechanisms that controls development of Cryptosporidium male and female sexual stages, relevant to parasite transmission. The single-host life cycle of this parasite is very timed and coordinated, involving multiple asexual and sexual stages that eventually lead to production of the transmissible oocyst. An insight into cell biological processes underlying male and female gametogenesis is allowing us to understand fundamental parasite biology and discovering new vaccine and drug targets for disease intervention. We are also very excited about another new project evolving in the laboratory on dissecting how Cryptosporidium attaches to the intestinal epithelial cell, and if inhibiting this process would block parasite invasion and disease pathogenesis.