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Faculty Spotlight: Parsing the Parasite Metabolism With Audrey Odom John, MD, PhD
Editor's Note: Welcome to our monthly Faculty Spotlight series, in which we sit down with faculty members at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute to learn more about their research and roles. Through these spotlights, our readers meet the diverse, dedicated, and distinctive individuals who lead our research community in our mission to improve children's health. It's a new round of spotlights, and this time, we're asking our featured scientists about how they encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion within their labs. In this Q&A, we meet Audrey Odom John, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at CHOP. Stay tuned for more from our Faculty Spotlight series throughout the year.
How long have you been at CHOP?
I have been at CHOP since the end of 2019, which means I was only just finding my way around when the pandemic hit. I can't believe it has been more than three years already.
Can you tell us about your research specialty and why you chose to focus on it?
Our lab is broadly interested in microbial metabolism. Many projects in the lab focus on the parasite that causes severe malaria, Plasmodium falciparum. We are interested in understanding parasite metabolism to help develop new treatments. Over the past several years, we have also become interested in breath volatile analysis as a way to diagnose pediatric infectious and inflammatory diseases.
The interest in malaria came out of my clinical interest in pediatric infectious diseases, as malaria has an outsized impact on pediatric health worldwide. Plus — parasites are incredibly cool. Many aspects of parasite biology are so different than what we think of as "normal" for human or bacterial cells. For example, even though they are animals, P. falciparum malaria parasites have an extra organelle that is similar to a chloroplast. Many parasite metabolism are similar to what you might find in plants.
Can you tell us about a current or recent research project that you are excited about?
We have so many fun things going on in the lab right now; you are asking me to pick a favorite child. One of the graduate students in the lab, Brianne Roper, is looking at a cool aspect of malaria parasite biology. It is commonly known that malaria causes fever, but that means that the parasite needs to survive despite wave after wave of body temperatures going up and down. Brianne is looking to understand how the parasite tolerates temperature changes, and she has found a protein that is essential for this process. Her work suggests that if we could develop a drug that targets this protein, it might be particularly useful in treating human malaria.
What are the long-term research questions you hope to answer?
Because our research is diverse, there are a lot of different directions I could take this question. I suppose one of the things I am most excited about right now is our work on pediatric breath composition. We have found that volatile compounds in breath convey a lot of information about the state of the body and the diseases that might be present; for example, we can diagnose malaria and SARS-CoV-2 infection from breath metabolites alone. But there is not a lot of information yet as to where these different breath compounds come from, and we have a number of ongoing studies to address this. My dream is that one day we will be able to analyze a simple, noninvasive breath sample to diagnose a host of pediatric infectious and noninfectious diseases.
How do you support diversity, equity, and inclusion among your research team?
I first got into basic science myself as an undergraduate because of a summer research program for women and under-represented minorities. We have been passionate about participating in "pipeline" programs every year, and the lab often bulges at the seams during the summer. This year, I think we have six summer trainees.
In addition, folks in my lab study malaria, which is a disease that is particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. We have been fortunate to have a number of trainees and visiting scientists from Africa who have spent time in the lab, which brings a really different perspective to the science that we do.