Department of Pathology

Dr. Tatsuki Sugi: Decoding the Mysteries of a Lethal Parasite

tatsuki-sugi(1)“The important thing is not to stop questioning,” Albert Einstein famously advised a young visitor. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Tatsuki Sugi, a post-doctoral fellow in the parasitology laboratory of Dr. Louis Weiss, takes Professor Einstein’s dictum to heart.

The object of Dr. Sugi’s curiosity: Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), a commonly occurring protozoan parasite in mammals and birds. Toxoplasmosis can result in severe disabilities such as encephalitis, and even death. It’s transmitted through contaminated food, soil, water and organ transplantation. In pregnant women infected for the first time, the parasite can travel across the placenta to the fetus and cause a severe congenital infection.

So far, Dr. Sugi has been the lead author or co-author of 29 published papers on T. gondii and other pathogens. A native of Japan, he holds a DVM degree and a PhD in veterinary medical science, both from the University of Tokyo. He joined Dr. Weiss’s lab at Einstein in 2014, and is supported by a multi-year fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

Deconstructing T. gondii

 toxoplasmaIn his current research, Dr. Sugi aims to understand how T. gondii transitions from the acute stage to latent-stage infection. “Biologically it’s quite an interesting mechanism,” he says. “I am curious about the parasite’s survival strategy in the host cell.” He and his colleagues in the Weiss lab have been dissecting the latent stage and identified critical pathways involved in its development.

T. gondii’s sensing mechanism is also of interest to Dr. Sugi. “Once the parasite senses its environment, the brain or liver for example, it changes its form from the acute phase to the latent phase,” he notes. “I want to identify which signaling molecule relates to that pathway.” Once he finds the answer to that question, he’ll tackle two more: How, after the signaling, does the parasite change its whole structure, and how does it benefit from doing so in the latent or acute phase?

He’s also looking at how T. gondii stores energy. “After the signaling, the latent-stage parasite will store energy in the cells, while the acute-phase parasite will consume that stored energy,” he explains, adding that regulation of energy storage is the key output for the parasite’s transition from latent- to acute-phase infection. “We’re now working on identifying the key regulators,” he reports.

Savoring Einstein’s Collaborative Culture

How does Dr. Sugi’s educational experience at Einstein compare with his earlier training in Japan? “In my previous institution the mass spectrometry resources were limited,” he says. “Here at Einstein, I have access to the core mass spec facility and to the proteomics tools and workflow there. “The research environment is more collaborative here than in Japan,” he adds. “Investigators are encouraged to work together and support each other. Our mentors and other faculty members want us to succeed. It’s a very good way of thinking.” By contrast, he says, the academic labs in Japan are more competitive because “everyone has to compete for grants and resources.” He has high praise for his mentor. “Dr. Weiss generously shares his scientific knowledge and he’s quite good at project management and networking,” says Dr. Sugi. Most importantly, he says, Dr. Weiss shows support for his mentees. “Whenever we have an idea for what to do next we can discuss it with Dr. Weiss. He always encourages us to go forward.”

Dr. Sugi also values weekly departmental lab meetings. “Sometimes in our lab we focus too much on the same things,” he says. “Our colleagues in the other labs come with a fresh eye.” Dr. Herbert Tanowitz’s lab, for example, studies the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, which causes Chagas disease. “Even though they’re working on a different parasite, Dr. Tanowitz and his team give us constructive suggestions,” says Dr. Sugi. He also credits Drs. Huan Huang and Kami Kim with offering “very helpful suggestions.”

A Gifted Problem Solver

“Quite simply, Tatsuki is a fantastic scientist,” says Dr. Weiss. “He’s curious, inventive, creative, hardworking and very talented. He likes to think through solutions to problems and is good at taking ideas and developing them to the next level. “Tatsuki has what we call ‘golden technical laboratory hands,’” add Dr. Weiss. “He’s superb at the actual carrying out of experiments.” For example, Dr. Sugi worked out a system for doing proteomics of the cyst wall of T. gondii. “It’s a technology I’ve been working on for 20 years, and got partially right,” says Dr. Weiss. “Tatsuki put together the different techniques and re-thought them. It’s a puzzle that wouldn’t have gotten solved without him.”

An Exciting Opportunity

This spring, Dr. Sugi will head back to Japan to join the Research & Development team at Medical Biological Laboratories (MBL), a company that specializes in antibody production for use in basic science and pharmaceutical laboratories. “My job will be to find novel target molecules suitable for making antibodies,” he says. In that capacity, he’ll be charged with identifying scientific collaborators who have novel receptor molecules, or therapeutic targets. He will also network with scientists based outside of Japan, including in the United States, to develop global distribution networks for MBL. Dr. Sugi is confident his work at MBL will help prepare him for a career in translational research. “I want to bring my skill in proteomics to my new position, and to gain experience in the steps from basic research to diagnosis,” he says.

What will he miss most about Einstein? “Good discussions with Dr. Weiss, senior faculty members, colleagues and students, especially the PhD students--and the beer hour with my lab colleagues. “I will also miss the cinnamon-raisin bagels Dr. Weiss serves at our morning lab meetings,” he concludes. “Dr. Tanowitz suggests that I bring frozen ones back with me. But it’s not the same.”


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