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Melanie Cushion holds down two jobs: she’s a research career scientist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she’s also professor and associate chair for research in the department of internal medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Dr. Cushion focuses her research on the fungus, Pneumocystis carinii, which is a harmless commensal for most people, but a deadly pathogen for others.
Pneumocystis carinii was shrouded in obscurity for many years until its fifteen minutes in the spotlight came in the 80’s, when, unfortunately, an outbreak of Pneumocystis pneumonia prefigured the AIDS epidemic. Large numbers of previously healthy homosexual men in California became deathly ill with Pneumocystis pneumonia, and doctors knew something unusual (later found to be HIV) was going on. Dr. Cushion says Pneumocystis pneumonia is an opportunistic infection: it strikes individuals with immune systems too weak to fend it off. This explains why it was – and still is – a well-known sign that the patient is stricken with an active HIV infection or some other immune-suppressing disorder.
Dr. Cushion heads up the Pneumocystis genome project and she’s also looking into a new line of drugs called glucan synthase inhibitors, which have a profound effect on Pneumocystis’s life cycle and may offer new insights into managing the pathogen.
In this interview, I talked with Dr. Cushion about some of the more surprising results to come out of her genomics work, why Pneumocystis is a tough nut to crack in the laboratory, and about why she’s not giving her young investigator award back to the Society of Protozoologists any time soon.
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