By Sarah Kiefer
Most people don’t find their area of research by contracting a disease, but Roman Ganta did.
When Ganta caught malaria in graduate school, the illness plagued him with recurring symptoms for six to seven months. The mosquito-borne disease wasn’t uncommon at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, in New Delhi, India, where he was earning his Ph.D. in Biochemistry, and he experienced symptoms every month. Going through this illness personally led Ganta to decide from that moment forward vector-borne diseases would be his life’s work.
“If I would have not been directly impacted by malaria, I would have likely gone down a different path. Therefore, I had a good motivation to do research in finding solutions for infections resulting from vectors, such as mosquitoes and ticks,” said Ganta, one of the newest principal investigators at Bond LSC and a McKee Endowed professor of veterinary pathobiology.
Although his drive to pursue the science of vector-borne diseases was strong, his father also played a part in Ganta’s decision.
Farming runs in the family for Ganta, but his father constantly encouraged him and his siblings to go after their passions in life and not choose the farming path paved for them.
“My father would say, ‘I’ll always be right here, but you can go beyond this village if you get higher education,” he said.
That is exactly what he did. As the seventh of eight children and with encouragement from his father, Ganta was given the room to develop his interests.
“I love being nearly the youngest in a big family, because people don’t pay attention to what you do, so you have the freedom to grow. It helped me adjust to different people and different mindsets later in life,” Ganta said.
Ganta is married and has three children with Suhasini Ganta, a senior scientist at Bond LSC. He stays connected to his family back home in India by calling his siblings and relatives every Saturday morning in addition to watching the news or viewing funny Indian movie clips on YouTube.
While malaria may have started Ganta down a research path, funding often drives research so he opted for a similar but more fundable topic — tick-borne diseases.
“I thought, this is something we need to investigate, considering the emergence of several new tick-borne diseases.” he said.
Ticks are blood sucking ectoparasites that feed on various animals and people and are prevalent in all parts of the world, especially in Missouri. During blood feeding, ticks transmit various disease-causing agents, including viruses, bacteria, and protozoan parasites. Ticks are frequently found near the ground in a variety of habitats including on leaves, wild grasses, and bushes. They attach themselves to animals and people when in close contact to them and crawl on the body of a host until they find an unexposed part where they can penetrate and suck their host’s blood.
Several tick-borne diseases have emerged as major public health concerns in the United States and many parts of the world.
“When you do research, you should have a goal to understand the critical nature of what causes the disease,” Ganta said. “That fundamental knowledge is important in devising methods of control such as developing vaccines.”
Ganta’s research involves gaining new knowledge of how pathogens developed the ability to survive in ticks and animals and aims to discover critical proteins in order to develop molecular strategies to make pathogens incapable of causing diseases. Ultimately, this new knowledge is used to develop vaccines combating the diseases.
Ganta has several active federally funded research projects in understanding tick-borne bacteria in addition to investigating vaccine development. His research is primarily focused on various rickettsial diseases — illnesses resulting from pathogenic bacteria transmitted from infected ticks.
Previously, Ganta and his wife were living in Manhattan, Kansas, where he worked at Kansas State University for 25 years. He established the Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases (CEVBD) in 2015 and became a university distinguished professor in 2022. His basic and applied research pertaining to various tick-borne diseases piqued Mizzou’s interest, and they reached out to Ganta to as part of the MizzouForward initiative.
MizzouForward aims to strengthen innovation in the research field to elevate Mizzou as one of the top research universities in the country. Its goal is to hire 150 new faculty members during the next five years. As part of this mission, it hired 33 new faculty, including Ganta, during the last several months. Researchers focus on one of six priority areas and meet criteria such as obtaining national awards or honors and a record of published science.
Ganta and his nine-member research team relocated to Bond LSC this spring to pursue a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded research program focused on human and animal ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF). He continues his far-reaching goals of controlling the impact of these tick-borne diseases on the health of people, cattle, pets and various animals by developing preventative vaccines.
His innovative molecular genetics research paved the way in identifying and selectively deleting genes essential for causing tick-borne diseases. The genetically modified bacteria not only lack the abilities to cause diseases, but also aid in providing sufficient immunity to protect against these severe diseases, which results in a modified live vaccine development. Likewise, Ganta’s vaccine research on RMSF offers promise in the prevention of a severe form of this century-old disease.
Ganta sees his daily work as an opportunity to improve and contribute to the world around him. He takes pride in the research, which he will continue at Bond LSC and enjoys working with others by engaging in collaborations with scientists that have diverse expertise at the University of Missouri and other academic institutions.
“Research is very exciting. You don’t do the same thing every day. Every day you are learning,” Ganta said. “You are finding a solution and approaching it with the right knowledge, contributing to the good of people, and the lives of animals. My education, my training, and my research competence, all have a purpose that I’m making the best use out of and that makes me happy at the end of the day.”
MizzouForward is a transformative, $1.5 billion long-term investment strategy in the continued research excellence of the University of Missouri. Over 10 years, MizzouForward will use existing and new resources to recruit up to 150 new tenure and tenure-track faculty to address some of society’s greatest challenges. Investments also will enhance staff to support the research mission, build and upgrade research facilities and instruments, augment support for student academic success, and retain faculty and staff through additional salary support.