There is a gap in knowledge concerning active infections of tick-borne diseases in animals across the United States-Mexico border. Previous studies have focused on identifying animals with recent or past exposure to tick-borne pathogens (e.g. antibody detection). However, not much is known about the number of actively-infected animals from this region.
Joseph Modarelli, Molecular Diagnostics Technician and PhD candidate at Texas A&M University, hopes his research may one day aid in the detection of animals currently infected with tick-borne diseases.
Modarelli started at TVMDL as a student worker in 2012. Throughout his undergraduate and now graduate careers, he has worked in the Molecular Diagnostics section. His interest in test development grew as part of his interest in genetics.
“I have always been fascinated with the field of genetics and more recently, with the field of diagnostics,” Modarelli said. “As I gained experience in the field of molecular diagnostics and further developed a passion for test development, I began to actively seek further education so I may contribute more to the field.”
Currently, Modarelli is pursuing a doctoral degree in genetics under the direction of Dr. Maria Esteve-Gasent. His research has primarily focused on molecular diagnostic test development for tick-borne diseases in canines.
“One aim of my research has been to develop a consolidated molecular test that detects a broad spectrum of tick-borne diseases,” Modarelli said. “Another aim has been to apply this test to conduct molecular prevalence studies for these pathogens in animals along the United States-Mexico transboundary regions.”
In accordance with past and recent studies, outbreaks of tick-borne diseases have increased in animals within these regions. Moreover, certain tick-borne pathogens, such as those that cause Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever, have rarely been studied. Through the use of molecular tools to conduct surveillance studies, researchers may be able to develop maps to depict areas of high-risk for disease and active infection. Knowing the need for this type of research, Modarelli sought out the opportunity to work with TVMDL professionals as well as TAMU and USDA-ARS researchers to develop a new type of molecular diagnostics test as part of his graduate research.
“I have always been more engaged in applied research projects,” Modarelli said. “So, when the opportunity arose to pursue a PhD in genetics while simultaneously being mentored by subject matter experts at TVMDL, I knew I found a project I could be successful pursuing and be passionate about.”
Through his PhD project, Modarelli developed a method, termed “LayerPlexing”, to screen and differentiate 12 known tick-borne pathogens. Most real-time PCR (qPCR) assays are limited to detection of a single pathogen (singleplex) or 4-5 pathogens (multiplex) in a single reaction. The development of a LayerPlex assay allows for a broader detection of tick-borne pathogens leading to a quicker and more cost-effective testing method.
Along with Modarelli and Dr. Esteve-Gasent from the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, staff at TVMDL, and the USDA-ARS worked to develop the TickPath LayerPlex (qPCR), which was recently added to TVMDL’s test catalog. Clients have the option of running the TickPath panel or running individual tests to specifically target a certain tick-borne pathogen.
“It has been very fulfilling to take on a research project and then see it being actively utilized for monitoring animal health,” Modarelli said. “I know of several ill canine patients who have received treatment based on the diagnosis of a tick-borne disease with help from the test I developed. It is the dream of every researcher to be able to impact their specific field of study with their own research projects.”
After graduation, Modarelli hopes to work with a federal entity. He would like to apply the knowledge and skills he has gained from his experiences at TVMDL and graduate research to furthering molecular diagnostics. Specifically, his interests lie in transboundary animal diseases and biosecurity.
To learn more about the TickPath LayerPlex (qPCR), visit tvmdl.tamu.edu or call 1.888.646.5623.