To mark World Malaria Day on 25 April, we look at how Imperial College London has been leading the fight against malaria in the past year.
The launch of the Imperial Network of Excellence in Malaria
Last October saw the launch of the Imperial College Network of Excellence in Malaria – an interdisciplinary network of researchers united in the common aim of malaria eradication.
Over 100 researchers at Imperial, from every faculty, work on different aspects of malaria eradication. To bring this diverse group together, the Network has been set up with the aim of combining scientific insights, technological innovations and evaluations of impact. The Network will focus on a wide-breadth of areas covering malaria, including diagnostics and engineering, economics, epidemiology and vaccinology.
Dr Jake Baum from Department of Life Sciences, and co-founder of the Network, said: “At Imperial, we have a unique breadth of expertise from bench to bedside, parasite to vector. Working together, alongside our global partners, we believe the network can help realise the goal of an eventual world eradication of malaria."
Progress towards a malaria vaccine
Following a two-year study, researchers at the Department of Life Sciences have unlocked an innovative way to break the vicious circle of malaria transmission by inhibiting the parasites’ life cycle at the point of fertilisation.
On the surface of the reproductive cells of male malarial parasites is a protein called HAP2. The international research team led by Imperial discovered that by blocking a small, easily targetable part of the HAP2 protein, fertilisation between the male and female parasites is disrupted. This results in malarial parasites being unable to reproduce efficiently, acting as a form of parasitic contraception.
The study, led by Dr Fiona Angrisano from the Department of Life Sciences, found that administration of the experimental vaccine in mice reduced malarial transmission by 58.9% compared to non-vaccinated mice. The team now wish to delve into the mechanism of fertilisation in the Plasmodium parasite further, with the hope that this understanding will hold potential to develop new and effective vaccines that reduce malarial transmission.
Funding boost for Target Malaria
Target Malaria is an international not-for-profit research consortium that aims to develop ways to control the spread of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Led by Imperial's Austin Burt, the past 12 months for Target Malaria have been prosperous.
In May 2017, Target Malaria received a generous $17.5 million grant from Open Philanthropy Project. The grant will help to deliver the project’s ambition which is malaria control by mosquito control – by reducing the numbers of malaria mosquitoes, the aim is to reduce the transmission of the disease. To do this, the team are researching the use of gene drive technology to reduce the population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes to low enough levels that they can no longer transmit the disease.
Austin Burt was also a recipient of the 2017 President’s Medal for Excellence in Societal Engagement for his work in engaging with local communities in the sub-Saharan African countries the Target Malaria trials will take place.
A surprising potential model for studying malaria resistance
The research team analysed the genetic make-up of sickled and non-sickled red blood cells (RBCs) in 15 species of deer, and compared them to our current knowledge of how the trait came about in humans. They found that the sickle trait in deer took a different evolutionary path to the trait in humans.
In humans, these misshapen sickled RBCs get stuck and build up in small blood vessels and organs, causing severe pain, anaemia, lack of oxygen, and damage to the organs. However, unlike humans, deer with sickle cells don’t suffer from the debilitating symptoms. This makes them interesting models in which to study how genetics influence the characteristics of sickle cells, in for example malaria resistance.
The researchers hope deer could act as a valuable model to help scientists understand the link between malaria and sickling in humans, though they say this will require a great deal more research.
Article text (excluding photos or graphics) © Imperial College London.
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