Spring 2009
Faculty Focus

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Tom Kozel, Ph.D.

Kozel’s research focus includes molecular biology of opportunistic fungal infections with emphasis on yeast infections in AIDS patients. Photo by Edgar Antonio Nunez.

Helping Lead the Way in Microbiology Research

Story by Marcie Newpher

Over the last 10 years, Thomas Kozel, Ph.D., has continued to immerse himself in the world of microbiology. A dedicated researcher and professor since 1971 and former chair for 25 years at the School of Medicine, he has made a significant impact in the field of microbial pathogenesis.

Clearly enthusiastic about making positive changes, Kozel has continued his 31-year interest in how the yeast Cryptococcus neoformans produces disease in patients with compromised immune systems.

“We’ve continued our ongoing studies of opportunistic fungal infections to better understand the pathogenesis of cryptococcal disease,” said Kozel.

Kozel discusses the possibilities that may exist in the not-so-distant future when it comes to improved diagnosis of infectious disease.

The question he is hoping to find the answer for is whether or not it is possible to bring testing at initial patient point-of-care to a resource-limited environment like Africa. Creating more convenient and cost-effective care to countries with limited resources could mean that more people will seek and receive the medical treatment they desperately need.

More recently, Kozel has expanded his research interest to include the biothreat Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax, a bacterium that has a cell envelope with many similarities to the outer coat of Cryptococcus.

The answers that could be found in the outer envelope of anthrax include whether or not antibodies can protect against infection.

He also asks whether or not we can detect envelope materials that are shed into blood or urine as a means for early diagnosis.

Because of the more than 30 years of studying Cryptococcus neoformans, Kozel said he has been able to draw on that experience to ask the right questions regarding other opportunistic infections and potential biothreats such as anthrax.

Some of those questions include: What is the best way to isolate the envelope components? What is the best way to generate antibodies? What are the best ways to screen for antibodies? How can we construct assays for detection of antibodies? And perhaps most important, how can we best translate production of antibodies to the outer envelope into clinically useful products?

Kozel said during the last decade, a trend has become apparent—the lessons learned from past research have everything to do with newly emerging health problems.

“We have learned to apply emerging technologies like molecular biology and imaging to questions that have been around for years in our studies of infectious diseases and then to move these questions to new and emerging infectious diseases.”

Kozel looks forward to in the coming years is the ability to “diagnose infection earlier and with more precision in a way that will allow us to use the existing antibiotics more effectively.”
Among Kozel’s many distinguished professional accomplishments, he considers his greatest to be that of professor and mentor.

Watching his face light up at the mention of his students, it is immediately clear what he is most passionate about.

“I enjoy teaching medical and doctoral students more than anything else,” he said.