The type of bacteria that causes Legionnaire's disease is sneaky, operating in ways that fool its host cell into thinking nothing is wrong. FoSheng Hsu, a Ph.D. candidate in the field of molecular biology and genetics, has received Cornell's first Harry and Samuel Mann Outstanding Graduate Student Award for his research into how the disease works at the cellular level.
"Legionella causes high fever and severe pneumonia," said Hsu. "It damages your lungs. If it's not treated properly, it can lead to death."
Thousands of people in the United States are hospitalized each year with Legionnaire's disease, and many more cases may go unreported here and abroad. People take regular antibiotics to fight the disease, "but there's no specific antibiotic targeting how Legionella works," said Hsu.
Hsu studies the cell membranes, where "the Legionella bacterium secretes a lipid-modifying protein in order to hide in a specialized compartment," explained Hsu. "It's secreting its own weapon so it doesn't get recognized by the host cell as a foreign bacteria or particle."
Hsu and his team, who work in the laboratory of Yuxin Mao, assistant professor of molecular biology and genetics, used X-ray crystallography to identify the protein and its structure, which is useful information for developing a therapeutic drug.
Hsu plans to use some of the $20,000 award to go to international conferences, such as a Legionella conference in Australia next year.
The award was established by Thomas '64 and Diane '66 Mann, and Jeanne and Gary Newman, parents of a Cornell freshman. Cousins Thomas and Jeanne conceived of the award as a way to honor their fathers, Harry and Samuel Mann, and to celebrate the next generation of biochemical, molecular and cell biologists.
The children of Russian immigrants, Harry and Samuel were some of the "few people in the United States who knew how to make penicillin" pre-World War II, said Jeanne Newman, Harry's daughter. In fact, during the war, Samuel helped set up a penicillin plant while Harry was sent to the infantry. After the war, the brothers started a company for the sale of research biochemicals.
"When I was little, my father would talk to me about his scientist friends at NIH or other places. He'd tell me about their work and why it was important for the wider world," said Thomas Mann, Samuel's son. "You could hear the respect and admiration in his voice."
"My family has been fortunate enough to live the American dream -- coming to this country, getting an education, working at something they liked and being successful. We want to make it come true for others," said Thomas Mann. "The award is about helping people achieve their dreams."
Laura Sheahen is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.