Sabrina Martinez had been working on another project for three and a half years before she realized she had to start over.
“I was scooped by another group and I had nothing to go forward with on the other project. I couldn’t publish it and I had to start over. It’s bizarre, but there was never more than a fleeting moment when I thought of giving up. Part of it is stubbornness but I also like the challenge. I like how in science, everything is uncharted territory,” she explained.
Martinez was just awarded a predoctoral individual National Research Service Award, also known as a F31 fellowship, which will provide her with supervised research training leading towards a doctoral degree. Recently, UT Health Science Center was ranked in the top four for number of awards given by the National Institutes of Health for this highly competitive fellowship.
She explained that she has always been in love with research.
“I always wanted to know why things were happening. Research gives you the opportunity to do that and allows you to learn what’s outside of the textbook. It’s exciting to me,” explained Martinez, who is a fifth year graduate student at the UT Health Science Center.
Her mentor, Dr. David Kadosh, explained that her project is very unique for a graduate student.
“The project that ended up getting funded by the F31 is something that she thought of entirely on her own. That doesn’t always happen and it’s something I like to encourage,” Dr. Kadosh said.
Her research is on Candida infections which are the fourth main cause of hospital-acquired bloodstream infections in the United States.
“It’s pretty significant, especially if you get a bloodstream infection, since the people it affects are immunocompromised and the mortality rate is very high” explained Martinez.
Candida can cause mucosal infections on surfaces like your mouth or vaginal cavity or systemic infections which occur through the bloodstream and can affect every tissue and organ in your body.
“A lot of pathogens only infect certain organs but Candida species can go pretty much everywhere and represent a major health problem” Dr. Kadosh said.
Martinez has been researching two types of Candida species. The first is Candida albicans, which is a highly studied pathogen that accounts for about 50 percent of infections and the second is a lesser-studied pathogen, Candida glabrata.
“As I was growing the species together, I realized that when Candida albicans is grown with Candida glabrata, it can’t form
filaments,” Martinez said. “The ability to form filaments is important for virulence in Candida albicans infections and there are certain growth conditions that affect filament formation. However, this is the first time that another Candida species had been found to prevent Candida albicans from filamenting.”
Martinez’s discovery is important because it could be useful in finding a new therapeutic for Candida infections.
“It’s a really big problem and affects a wide patient population. Currently about 1 billion dollars per year is spent on treatment for infections, but despite all of this, there are only 3 major classes of antifungals. In contrast, there are around 30 major classes of antibiotics so there is a huge demand to develop novel and more effective antifungal therapies,” Dr. Kadosh said. “It’s not a magic bullet but it could assist in treatment, especially if combined with other therapies.”
Martinez is now working to identify what exactly is being made by Candida glabrata that is preventing Candida albicans filamentation.
“I know it’s something that’s important for people, especially those who are immunocompromised and that population continues to grow. Another thing that motivates me is that my dad had kidney failure and ended up succumbing to a Candida infection, so in addition to knowing I am helping other people I can also do it for my dad.”
This article is part of the “Meet The Researcher” series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.