Food science Ph.D. candidate Cassandra Suther has received a prestigious predoctoral fellowship of $180,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) to study the effect of norovirus on the development and severity of food allergies.
Suther was doing an experiment, focusing on a well plate containing multiple small cavities, when she received the news about her fellowship over email. “I was so excited I dropped my 96-well plate in the sink,” she recalls. “Luckily, it was fine. It is such an honor to receive the award and I look forward to conducting the research.”
Suther is set to complete her doctorate next year and plans to continue allergy research at UMass Amherst. “After that, I want to work in a government laboratory and pursue academic editing,” she says.
Affecting about 10% of the U.S. population, food allergies are increasing at an alarming rate. One of the theories on a contributing factor is the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that limiting exposure to microorganisms in childhood may increase allergic diseases.
What if contracting a common foodborne and environmental virus, norovirus, might actually present an advantage when it comes to food allergies? Although norovirus can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, there may be some evidence to suggest some benefit from infection.
“Food allergies are thought to be heavily linked to the dysbiosis, or reduced diversity, of the gut microbiome and its immune effects,” Suther says. “Based upon some data that previously has been reported, we suspect that infection with norovirus may actually have the potential to reduce the likelihood of someone developing food allergies.”
Suther is a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Matthew Moore, assistant professor of food science who studies food and environmental viruses. Suther also will collaborate closely with Dr. Yanjiao Zhou, a medical doctor and computational biologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, for the project. Zhou was one of the lead analysts in the Human Microbiome Project, a National Institutes of Health initiative.
“Cassie is an extremely promising young scientist, and it is a privilege to get to work with her,” Moore says. “This award was very well-deserved and definitely not the last she will be receiving. It will be really exciting to see both this project and her career evolve.”
“Viral interactions in the field of allergies is an under-developed topic,” Suther says. “This research could change our understanding of the role of eukaryotic enteric viruses in the development, or lack thereof, of a number of diseases outside of the gastrointestinal tract.”
NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, under which Suther received the fellowship, focuses on developing the next generation of research, education, and extension professionals in the food and agricultural sciences.