Infectious disease and immunology fellow to continue research into tick disease

Collage of two images, Elis Fisk on the left in lab coat, removing specimen from refrigeration, and close-up image of two ticks on the right.

Elis Fisk, a fourth-year anatomic pathology resident and doctoral student at Washington State University, has been accepted as a fellow in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s infectious disease and microbial immunology post-doctoral training program.

Fisk is investigating a phenomenon called acquired tick resistance in the lab of Dr. Dana Shaw in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology and will continue that work in his fellowship.

“Acceptance into the training program is an exciting chance to have my research recognized and supported. It also gives me a clear trajectory to continue to pursue research on ticks and tick-borne diseases in the future,” Fisk said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity, and I’m glad that my research will be able to benefit from it.”

In acquired tick resistance, an animal (or human) can mount an immune response against ticks during repeated tick bites or infestations. This host immune response seems to be harmful to the tick, as it can reduce the time a tick is attached to the host and can even lead to the ejection of the tick from the skin. In some cases, ejection can happen within 24 hours, which is less time than it takes for the tick to transmit certain tick-borne diseases, such as Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

“The interesting thing about acquired tick resistance is that only certain animals can develop it against certain ticks — we see it almost exclusively in animals that are not ‘natural’ hosts of the offending tick species,” Fisk said. “We think ticks have developed some mechanism to prevent the development of resistance in the hosts they have co-evolved with, possibly through substances secreted in their saliva.”

Fisk has been attempting to unravel why some species are able to develop resistance and others can’t.

“If we can learn more about tick resistance, we may be able to develop a way to help humans and animals develop resistance to ticks and prevent the spread of some tick-borne diseases,” he said.

In addition to his doctoral work, Fisk also examines biopsy samples from animals to help diagnose diseases or cancer in living patients and completes necropsies to determine the cause of death in animals as part of his residency.

Fisk earned a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience at the University of Michigan and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Michigan State University. He has been at WSU since 2019 when he began his combined anatomic pathology residency program.

In the program, residents train in the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, a full-service veterinary diagnostic laboratory staffed by faculty in the Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology and Veterinary Clinical Sciences departments, while also earning a doctorate in biomedical sciences.

Fisk said WSU stood out for a number of reasons, including the stature of its anatomic pathology program.

“It is one of the top programs in the country,” he said. “When I came out to interview, I thought the pathologists seemed like great people to work with – I was proven correct later. The general feel from the pathologists, residents and researchers wasn’t one of competition or haughtiness, but of genuine support, collaboration and willingness to learn.” 

He was also drawn to Shaw’s research into vector-borne disease.

“Arthropods are a special interest of mine, and it really helped sell me on WSU knowing there was a chance to work on projects related to them. Dr. Shaw also seemed like she would be a good mentor— she is very knowledgeable about the field, is always excited about our research, and she gives excellent advice.

“The same things that drew me to WSU are the things keeping me here. I genuinely enjoy my research, my residency program, and my colleagues.”