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Battle lines In the fight to prevent and treat pathogens, Robert Wheeler is focused on the leading cause of hospital-acquired infection. by Beth Staples

Computer and man pointing at the screenLife-and-death battles rage in Robert Wheeler’s lab at the University of Maine.

The combatants — zebrafish and Candida albicans — fight to the bitter end in glass-bottom microplates.

Similar perilous battles are being fought inside humans. The C. albicans fungus is a leading cause of hospital-acquired infection that annually kills several thousand patients nationwide.

During the staged scuffles in Wheeler’s lab in Hitchner Hall, anesthetized zebrafish are injected with Candida and placed in a gelatinous material called agarose.
A laser microscope captures and magnifies the struggles inside the zebrafish blood vessels in real time in high-definition color detail.

The microplate clashes provide the assistant professor of microbiology with the ability to view how immune cells fight the microbe, identify genes involved in virulence, test new drugs and learn how gene perturbations affect host-pathogen interaction.

“We’re using zebrafish to ask really specific questions that cannot be answered another way,” Wheeler says. “These questions have been inaccessible for a long time. We hope to be able to better utilize existing therapies and be able to develop better therapies.”

In March 2012, Wheeler received a three-year, more than $421,600 grant from the National Institutes of Health to ask and answer these questions in the project: “Genetics & Visualization of Innate Host Response to Candida albicans Infection In Vivo.”

The goal is that the resulting answers will save human lives.

The grant is the most-recent funding Wheeler has received during his 13-year quest to unravel the mysteries of Candida.

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Spring 2013

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