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King University News :: Students Conduct Research in King’s Neurotoxicology Lab; Initial Results Relate Pesticide Exposure to Parkinson’s Disease

Three King University students spent their summer with Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Vanessa Fitsanakis in the Neurotoxicology Lab researching the possible effects of pesticides on mitochondria.  The student research is part of a larger grant-funded project through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). 

Participating research interns included Shelbie Burchfield, junior Molecular and Cell Biology major minoring in Chemistry and Mathematics; Sarah Orfield, senior majoring in Neuroscience; and Royce Nichols, senior Neuroscience major minoring in Chemistry and Security Intelligence Studies.

“All three students did an exceptional job in the lab this past summer,” said Dr. Fitsanakis.  “Because of that, I suggested they continue their research as a senior thesis project.  Royce and Sarah will defend their projects in April.  As a junior, Shelby has the option of defending her project in April, or may choose to continue the research next summer.  The goal for all three students is to publish a collective article on their research in a scientific journal, an opportunity that very few undergraduates actually have.”

Orfield’s summer research included the treatment of worms with Manzate, a broad-spectrum fungicide for many fruits and vegetables, to determine if the worms’ mitochondrial function was damaged. The mitochondria are important for the survival of cells because they provide the energy required to keep the cells alive.  “My hypothesis was that chronic, or long-term, treatment with Manzate would cause a direct decrease in ATP production by the mitochondria, without causing whole-cell death.  The Manzate, with which I treated the worms, has an ingredient called manganese.  Manganism or manganese poisoning is a toxic condition resulting from chronic exposure to manganese and is similar to Parkinson’s disease.  My research seeks to find those similar conditions that may imitate Parkinson’s.  Hopefully, understanding the similarities will give us a better view of how both diseases work.”

“I really enjoyed the lab work. It was great,” said Orfield.  “I felt well-prepared for the research. However, I think there is a kinetic aspect to [research] that you do not ever get or can be prepared for except through practice.” After graduation, Orfield plans to go into research.  “I am thinking about neuro-behaviorism and neuro-endocrinology.” 

The research Burchfield and Nichols conducted was similar in nature.  While both were examining ATP levels of mitochondria and cellular membrane integrity, Nichols focused on chronic treatment, while Burchfield focused on acute, or short-term, treatment.  Nichols commented, “In Parkinson’s disease, the mitochondria are very inhibited.  Depending on the percentage of pesticide we were using to treat the worms, our research suggests there is a mitochondrial inhibition.  We can theorize that this could contribute to Parkinson’s disease.” 

Burchfield added, “We are all doing different things to discover what causes mitochondrial inhibition, which part of the mitochondria is being affected.” 

Dr. Fitsanakis plans to take all three undergraduate researchers to the Society of Toxicology meeting, the largest meeting of toxicologists in the world, which will take place in Phoenix, Ariz., in March 2014.  “The students are hoping to generate enough data from their research this past summer, and through further studies this fall, to tell a succinct story about their research on the posters they are developing.  They will then submit abstracts to the conference this month.  The conference offers scholarships for undergraduate research.  Each student will submit an application to that program.  If awarded the scholarship, it would pay for airfare to the March meeting.”

“Time spent conducting research this summer has definitely changed my career path,” said Burchfield.  “My dream job would be a doctor or surgeon, but I also have really enjoyed working in a lab.  I love the analytical aspect of research.  I plan to apply for another research internship next summer.”

Nichols commented, “My interests lie with neurotoxicology.  When I found out about Dr. Fitsanakis’ lab, I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore my interests.  I absolutely loved the research this summer.  I can’t adequately describe in words how helpful this experience has been.  Upon graduation, I plan to pursue a master’s and Ph.D. in Biodefense.”

When asked if they would recommend other students pursue lab research opportunities, Orfield, Burchfield, and Nichols all gave a resounding, “Yes!” 

The $300,000 NIEHS grant, which is distributed over the course of three years, was secured through a rigorous national competitive process with a funding success rate of just 8.5%.  It is one of the largest grants in the University’s history, and represents a major milestone in scientific research at King.

The NIEHS funding enables undergraduate students, predominantly those in Biology or Neuroscience, to engage in hands-on original research, an opportunity usually only available to students of large research-intensive universities.  It also permits Dr. Fitsanakis’ student research team to participate in a host of national and international conferences.  The grant, an Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA), is for institutions that do not receive a large amount of federal funding; it also requires the involvement of undergraduates in the research process.

The grant, entitled “Role of Oxidative Stress and Protein Transporters in Glyphosate and Mancozeb Neurotoxicity,” focuses on the potential ability for widely-used pesticides to cause oxidative stress, which can damage proteins, cell membranes, and even DNA.

For information on research opportunities in King’s neurotoxicology lab, contact Dr. Vanessa Fitsanakis at 423.652.6322 or


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