Dr. Karine Gousset, associate professor in the College of Science and Mathematics at Fresno State, received a $1.3 million grant to further support the fight against three major health problems plaguing society: persistent viral infections, neurological diseases and cancer. The four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health will be used to expand her research.

According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2020 an estimated 1.8 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States. Viral infections and neurological diseases are also rising at dangerous levels.

Gousset’s research is focused on the role that tunneling nanotubes (TNTs) play in the spreading of viruses involved in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and cancer.

Recent studies have revealed that the viruses responsible for AIDS or the flu induce and exploit these structures, thereby evading an immune response. TNTs were also shown to mediate the direct transfer of critical cellular material between tumor cells and their surrounding tissue in some of the most aggressive cancers, increasing their proliferation and persistence.

“Many times, viruses will use these ‘tunnels’ to spread from one cell to another, blocking the ability of our immune system to recognize the existence of these threats or to build a defense against them,” Gousset said.

However, TNTs are not all bad as they play a vital role in cell and tissue health. TNTs transfer mitochondria between cells, promoting recovery from ischemic stroke in the brain, reperfusion injury in the heart, inflammation due to asthma in the lungs and cell death due to hypoxia.

At Fresno State, Gousset has worked diligently to demonstrate the significance of her research. “My lab is the first group to show that different types of subcellular protrusions — including TNTs — can be isolated, enriched and analyzed for their protein content” Gousset explained. “We were also the first to devise an approach which can delineate between distinct types of cellular protrusions providing an opportunity to identify biomarkers.”

Students working in Gousset’s lab will have the unique opportunity to be amongst the first in the world to work on this type of research.

With the grant, Gousset plans to delve deeper into the mysteries of TNTs by identifying the signaling pathways that lead to their formation. She will also expand her study to look at the presence of ribonucleic acids (RNA), the molecules that carry the instructions to make proteins, in TNTs. She has partnered with Dr. Erin Nishimura, an expert in low-input RNA sequencing and analysis at Colorado State University.

“If we could understand how TNTs are formed, we could [utilize] drugs that stop or increase them as needed,” Gousset said.