Debra Tokarz, a doctoral student at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is the 2013 recipient of the Young Investigator Award sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.
The Young Investigator Award (YIA) is a national honor given to a graduate veterinarian pursuing advanced research training through doctoral or postdoctoral programs.
A member of both Dr. Jeffrey Yoder’s laboratory in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences and the Clinical Genomics Core in the NC State Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research (CCMTR), Dr. Tokarz received the YIA recognition after a panel of scientists at the Merial-National Institutes of Health National Veterinary Scholars Symposium evaluated her presentation on her research with zebrafish.
Dr. Tokarz is studying the genes involved in the innate immune system, the first line of defense against infection. Zebrafish embryos provide an excellent model for this research since in the first few weeks of life zebrafish are protected only by the innate immune system. The adaptive immune response, responsible for making antibodies and providing long-term protection, does not develop until zebrafish are four to six weeks old.
“This NIH-funded project was initiated by Dr. Yoder and employed microarrays to monitor gene expression levels within the zebrafish embryo,” says Dr. Tokarz. “We looked at tens of thousands of genes and compared their expression in zebrafish embryos in a natural setting to their expression in zebrafish embryos after being exposed to molecules that mimic bacterial or viral infection. We then compared the two groups to determine which genes are more highly expressed, or activated, after infection.”
The goal is to take the genes identified with the innate immune response in the zebrafish and study those that are shared with humans but have no known function or never have been implicated in immunity. Dr. Tokarz is studying one of these genes—called TRIM9—and is investigating the role TRIM9 plays in the innate immune response in both zebrafish and higher mammals such as mice.
“Ultimately we want to be able to translate this immune work from the zebrafish to human health,” says Dr. Tokarz.
Dr. Tokarz is participating in the three-year CCMTR Comparative Medicine and Translational Research Training Progra. She graduated from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine and completed a residency in anatomic pathology at UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine.