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EIP Faculty Spotlight

Saravanan Thangamani - EIPInterview with
Dr. Saravanan Thangamani
Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Director of the new SUNY Upstate Vector Biocontainment Laboratory

Interview by Ali Blais, SUNY System
March 29, 2021

Dr. Thangamani joined SUNY Upstate Medical University as a SUNY Empire Innovation Professor in 2019. An internationally renowned expert in vector-borne diseases, Dr. Thangamani and his team relocated from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to design and direct the Upstate Vector Biocontainment Lab.

AB: Dr. Thangamani, please tell us about the research your lab has been conducting.

Dr. Thangamani: My lab has been investigating the tick/mosquito feeding interface, with respect to virus transmission, for the past 12 years. Our primary objective is to prevent people from contracting tick-borne diseases and to suppress mosquito-borne virus infections.

Ticks and mosquitoes are hematogenous arthropods that require blood for survival and reproduction. To facilitate feeding, they inject salivary compounds into our skin, delivering a pharmacopoeia of proteins that, among other things, prevent blood clotting and suppress pain at the feeding site. Along with this cocktail of proteins, they also inject disease-causing agents. My lab tries to understand how the presence of virus in a tick or mosquito changes these salivary secretion dynamics facilitating virus transmission at the tick or mosquito feeding interface. At this time, my lab is focused on Powassan virus, which is spread by ticks, and Chikungunya and Zika viruses, both spread by mosquitos. We’re also investigating the effect of co-infection on the clinical outcome of Lyme disease and Powassan encephalitis.

Although my lab is primarily a vector-borne disease laboratory, the new Vector Biocontainment Lab now positions us to work with SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. We are trying to apply our methodologies and expertise from our vector-borne disease research to SARS-CoV-2, our small contribution to the global pandemic.

AB: What key findings are emerging from your research?

Dr. Thangamani: We have identified 32 different targets that could suppress the replication of Chikungunya virus. By suppressing viral replication, the drug would speed up the patient’s recovery process. As far as the tick-borne pathogens are concerned, we have identified six proteins that could potentially be used for an anti-tick vaccine, as well as a transmission blocking vaccine for Powassan virus. These potential proteins and drugs are currently under preclinical trial. Once we successfully demonstrate effectiveness in smaller animal model systems, we’ll be able to move to the clinical trial stage. 

AB: What impact is your work having on individuals and communities?

Dr. Thangamani: In addition to our lab-based research, which aims to prevent people from contracting tick-borne diseases and suppressing mosquito-borne virus infections, my lab is conducting health-based field research to understand the geographic expansion of ticks and tick-borne disease in New York.

To facilitate this epidemiology research, we started a Citizen Science program. The public sends ticks to my lab and we identify the species and test for any disease-causing agents. The result is shared with the tick submitter and disseminated publicly through our lab website. This community engaged tick surveillance is a win-win combination for the public and also for my research. The public gets to know the infection status of the tick that they encountered and we get valuable data to monitor the emergence of ticks and tick-borne pathogens in New York. We publish this information on our Upstate Testing Program website at NYticks.org, where people can learn how to send us a tick for testing and view our dashboard to check the prevalence of ticks and pathogens in each county. My lab is also using the Citizen Science data to understand the impact of climate change and human behavior on tick-borne disease transmission in the State of New York.

Our program has a direct impact on the public. Within a few days of sending us a tick, an individual can learn whether the tick was carrying disease, and can make an informed decision about what to do next. Clinicians use the dashboard from our website to learn which ticks are prevalent in their county and the pathogens they carry, which helps them with the differential diagnosis. In addition, we engage in public outreach to educate the public about how to prevent tick bites.

This project is primarily supported by my Empire Innovation Program funds. Because our lab was under construction, I couldn’t use my EIP funds for BSL-3 research, so we started this community outreach activity. Honestly, I never thought this project would have such a big impact on the public.

AB: How did moving to Upstate Medical University and joining the SUNY research community influence your work?

Dr. Thangamani: The support from the university has been really awesome. From the moment that we started our Citizen Science program, everyone, including President Dewan, and Dr. Thomas, has been very supportive, clearing all the hurdles for us to do the science. I can guarantee that we would not have been able to duplicate our success anywhere else because of the extensive expertise at Upstate. For example, I want to give a shout-out to the Moonshot Team, and the IT team, who helped develop our Upstate Tick Testing Program’s dashboard. I had a vision and they came up with the solution. The support and expertise from the university administration, staff, and faculty, as well as the SUNY EIP fund, has been a driving force for our success.

AB: What advice would you offer to new SUNY research faculty?

Dr. Thangamani: I would like to offer the advice I received when I was a young faculty: “Don't apply for funding for the idea that you like. Apply for the idea that the funding agencies want to fund.”  It's very simple advice, but it changed everything for me. Early in my career, I failed many times. I had submitted many applications that were never funded. I was pursuing an idea I was passionate about, but NIH was not interested in that idea at the time. So, I did my research on what NIH was funding, changed my lab’s research direction, generated preliminary data in support of my new hypothesis, and my grant application was funded. From then on, I have always focused on what the funders would like to fund.

While we are passionate about a particular idea, if we want to survive and thrive in the current competitive research environment, we must be aware of the funding agency’s priorities. Adapting and molding ourselves to new opportunities and challenges will allow us to thrive in a challenging funding environment.  

AB: What’s next for you and your research team?

Dr. Thangamani: We are trying to ramp up the opportunities that we missed while the VBL was in development. We are switching the gears on our preclinical assessment of the vaccine candidates that we have developed. My lab has extensive experience in preclinical research, so we are using our expertise to test the efficacy of vaccines or drugs for other researchers as well. We’re also developing small animal model studies for the SARS-CoV-2 variants. While we are switching gears on biocontainment research, I still want to continue the Citizen Science tick surveillance program. However, finding a sustainable funding model for our Citizen Science program is a big challenge.