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Infectious disease

Mireille Kamariza

Diagnostics designer is fashioning a faster, cheaper way to detect tuberculosis

by Laura Howes
August 14, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 31
09831-cover6-profile.jpg

Credit: Mireille Kamariza/Harvard (Kamariza); James Archer/CDC (bacteria); Shutterstock (X-rays)

 
Credit: Mireille Kamariza/Harvard (Kamariza); James Archer/CDC (bacteria); Shutterstock (X-rays)

Mireille Kamariza wants to make a difference in neglected diseases around the world. As a first step, she developed a quick and cheap test for tuberculosis (TB) while still in graduate school.

Kamariza was 17 when she moved to the US from Burundi in search of the American dream. But even then, she says, “I don’t think that I had quite an understanding of where my career would take me.”

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That career started at community college, where Kamariza describes herself as operating in survival mode. She was studying, learning English, and also working a part-time job. But her introductory chemistry professor, Saloua Saidane, spotted something in her. Like Kamariza, Saidane spoke French, and she took the time to explain the technical terms in Kamariza’s textbooks. That, Kamariza says, allowed her to discover her passion and talent for science, and she eventually transferred to the University of California San Diego for a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.

After UCSD, Kamariza started her graduate studies under the mentorship of chemical biologist Carolyn Bertozzi, whose lab was studying how different organisms, including the bacteria that causes TB, incorporate sugars into different biological molecules.

Research at a glance
Kamariza helped develop a faster, cheaper tuberculosis diagnostic. The test uses a reporter molecule, DMN-Tre, which an enzyme attaches to fatty acids that get incorporated into the bacterial cell wall and fluoresce.
Credit: Adapted from Science/Yang H. Ku/C&EN

TB affects about 10 million people worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization. But the most common test relies on a doctor or technician skillfully spotting the telltale shape of Mycobacterium tuberculosis among all the bacteria in a patient’s sputum. Results of the test can vary wildly, and the more advanced techniques that have emerged are beyond the capabilities of many clinics in resource-poor areas.

Kamariza’s technique is specific to Mycobacteria and only works if they are alive and taking up nutrients. That means it can be used to test for infection and also as a quick and easy method for monitoring whether a patient is responding to TB drugs.

To achieve this, Kamariza bridged two subgroups of the Bertozzi lab—the TB cell wall biology team and one focused on glycan imaging. The test uses a trehalose, which TB bacteria use as fuel, tethered to a dye that only fluoresces in greasy environments. When TB cells take up the sugar-dye compound and insert it into the bacterial cell wall, doctors can see the result using fluorescence microscopy.

Bertozzi says that Kamariza spearheaded the development of the test, bringing in clinical collaborators in South Africa and recruiting local high school students to work on the project. “Mireille is the kind of student who one is lucky to find even once in a career,” says Bertozzi. “Within the span of a PhD thesis, she drove the project all the way to the hands of clinicians and public health researchers, involved at every step. It is a very rare and exceptional person who has the universe of skills to make such impact.”

Bertozzi and Kamariza founded a company, OliLux Biosciences, to develop the test for public benefit, and Kamariza holds the position of cofounder and CEO. She is now working to define her independent research focus as a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, a competitive and highly coveted independent postdoctoral program.

“I’m always driven by big problems that many people aren’t really looking into,” Kamariza says. She says that focusing on questions that others don’t see the value in could give her the edge professionally as she works to improve global health. She’s tight-lipped about what her next focus will be but will say that “I think whatever that is, it’s going to come out pretty good.”

Vitals

Current affiliation: Harvard University

Age: 31

PhD alma mater: Stanford University

Hometown: Bujumbura, Burundi

If I weren’t a chemist, I’d be: “So many things! When I was a young girl, I wanted to become an astronaut.”

If I were an element, I’d be: Hydrogen, “a uniquely important element that is deeply fundamental to life as we know it.”

Mireille Kamariza wants to make a difference in neglected diseases around the world. As a first step, she developed a quick and cheap test for tuberculosis (TB) while still in graduate school.

Vitals

Current affiliation: Harvard University

Age: 31

PhD alma mater: Stanford University

Hometown: Bujumbura, Burundi

If I weren’t a chemist, I’d be: “So many things! When I was a young girl, I wanted to become an astronaut.”

If I were an element, I’d be: Hydrogen, “a uniquely important element that is deeply fundamental to life as we know it.”

Kamariza was 17 when she moved to the US from Burundi in search of the American dream. But even then, she says, “I don’t think that I had quite an understanding of where my career would take me.”

That career started at community college, where Kamariza describes herself as operating in survival mode. She was studying, learning English, and also working a part-time job. But her introductory chemistry professor, Saloua Saidane, spotted something in her. Like Kamariza, Saidane spoke French, and she took the time to explain the technical terms in Kamariza’s textbooks. That, Kamariza says, allowed her to discover her passion and talent for science, and she eventually transferred to the University of California San Diego for a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.

After UCSD, Kamariza started her graduate studies under the mentorship of chemical biologist Carolyn Bertozzi, whose lab was studying how different organisms, including the bacteria that causes TB, incorporate sugars into different biological molecules.

TB affects about 10 million people worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization. But the most common test relies on a doctor or technician skillfully spotting the telltale shape of Mycobacterium tuberculosis among all the bacteria in a patient’s sputum. Results of the test can vary wildly, and the more advanced techniques that have emerged are beyond the capabilities of many clinics in resource-poor areas.

Kamariza’s technique is specific to Mycobacteria and only works if they are alive and taking up nutrients. That means it can be used to test for infection and also as a quick and easy method for monitoring whether a patient is responding to TB drugs.

To achieve this, Kamariza bridged two subgroups of the Bertozzi lab—the TB cell wall biology team and one focused on glycan imaging. The test uses a trehalose, which TB bacteria use as fuel, tethered to a dye that only fluoresces in greasy environments. When TB cells take up the sugar-dye compound and insert it into the bacterial cell wall, doctors can see the result using fluorescence microscopy.

Bertozzi says that Kamariza spearheaded the development of the test, bringing in clinical collaborators in South Africa and recruiting local high school students to work on the project. “Mireille is the kind of student who one is lucky to find even once in a career,” says Bertozzi. “Within the span of a PhD thesis, she drove the project all the way to the hands of clinicians and public health researchers, involved at every step. It is a very rare and exceptional person who has the universe of skills to make such impact.”

Bertozzi and Kamariza founded a company, OliLux Biosciences, to develop the test for public benefit, and Kamariza holds the position of cofounder and CEO. She is now working to define her independent research focus as a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, a competitive and highly coveted independent postdoctoral program.

“I’m always driven by big problems that many people aren’t really looking into,” Kamariza says. She says that focusing on questions that others don’t see the value in could give her the edge professionally as she works to improve global health. She’s tight-lipped about what her next focus will be but will say that “I think whatever that is, it’s going to come out pretty good.”

Research at a glance
09831-cover6-graphic.jpg
Credit: Adapted from Science/Yang H. Ku/C&EN
Kamariza helped develop a faster, cheaper tuberculosis diagnostic. The test uses a reporter molecule, DMN-Tre, which an enzyme attaches to fatty acids that get incorporated into the bacterial cell wall and fluoresce.
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