An interview with Dr Eva Gluenz

June 2020

Dr Eva Gluenz is Group Leader at the University of Glasgow. She is also a member of the Microbiology Society and, in this interview, she tells us more about her research into the molecular cell biology of the protozoan parasite Leishmania.

Eva Gluenz
© Eva Gluenz

What is your role and area of research?

I am a Group Leader at the Wellcome Centre for Intergative Parastiology at the University of Glasgow, studying the molecular cell biology of the protozoan parasites Leishmania. Leishmania infect human macrophages and these parasites have long interested immunologists who wanted to understand how they are able to subvert normal immune responses. I am interested in the basic cell biology of the parasite, to discover how this parasite is able to go though its life cycle, from the gut of a blood feeding sand fly, to the hostile environment of a macrophage, and back again. I started my own research group in 2011, thanks to a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, which gave me time to build my research programme and get involved in some undergraduate and graduate teaching. Now I am looking forward to new challenges following the move of my lab to Glasgow.

How did you become interested in studying Leishmania?

As a student interested in molecular biology and gene expression, my interest in Leishmania and their close relatives; the trypanosomes, was piqued when I first heard that these protists didn’t follow the usual textbook descriptions for expression of their genes. When I started working on these parasites in the laboratory, genetic tools to manipulate their genomes were quite advanced for the time, and the first shotgun genome sequences started appearing on GenBank. With a genome project on the horizon, this seemed like a really exciting time to get into this field and apply new genetic tools to a pathogen with unexplored interesting biology. The impact of genomics has indeed been significant, and the apparently 'unusual' biology of these protists speaks to many questions that fascinate microbiologists, as well as evolutionary biologists more widely.

Why is your research important?

While it is easy to justify the importance of researching pathogens, with a view to combating disease, I believe there is also real value in studying unexplored biology for its own sake. We cannot always predict what impact new knowledge will have in the future. But, if we collectively focus too narrowly on the same types of applications and outcomes, where will the transformative new ideas and technologies come from?

How important is it to better understand Leishmaniasis and develop better treatments for it?

Leishmaniasis is a neglected tropical disease caused by over 20 different species of Leishmania that are known to infect humans. Depending on the infecting species, the disease symptoms vary from mild, self-healing skin lesions to the potentially fatal infection of internal organs. Millions of people are at risk of infection, mostly in the poorest communities and in regions of war. The drugs used to treat leishmaniasis are expensive, toxic and difficult to administer; hence, there is an urgent need for new and better drugs. To deliver these, a better understanding of the disease pathology and basic biology of the parasite are important. However, as there is no profitable market that yields a strong return on investments, strong partnerships between academia, governments and industry are critical to translate scientific discoveries into drugs for patients. Better treatments will not only benefit the people currently infected, but also those at risk in the future, as leishmaniasis is predicted to spread with global warming and as a result of conflict and displacement of people.

What kind of challenges do you encounter in your work and how do you overcome them?

There are many challenges every day, from unexpected results in an experiment, to the question of how to build and motivate a team of researchers to do their best science. To deal with practical issues, such as how to secure research funding, I find it helps to speak to colleagues who are dealing with similar issues, and who can give honest feedback on grant applications. Other challenges are a bit harder; for example, resisting temptation to start something new and interesting before the current work is completed, but also recognising when a new and unexpected result is really worth pursuing.

Why is it important to be a member of an organisation like the Microbiology Society?

Initially, I joined the Society to attend meetings and to be able to apply for travel grants. Now the value comes from networking with people beyond my immediate field, to be able to shape the conference programme through my work as a member of the Eukaryotic Division, and to have a collective voice in policy development and reaching out to the public.

Why does microbiology matter?

Throughout human history, microbes have been both our best friends and worst enemies: they have given us wine and cheese, caused plagues and produced penicillin. Right now, one only has to look at the daily newsfeed on coronavirus to appreciate how infectious diseases remain a threat. All of the scientific advances over the last century have not eliminated this threat, but they have placed us in a much better position to deal with it. But not all microbes are bad: people are looking to microbes for solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing us; from food security to the health of our planet. A great time to be a microbiologist!

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].