Today I competed in the Three Minute Thesis competition, which first started at the University of Queensland. Essentially, doctoral candidates have three minutes to inform a public audience what their research is all about. If that sounds easy, remember, a Ph.D thesis is typically 80 000 words of technical writing, which is not always so easy to condense down into something easy to swallow, especially for a non-expert. With that said, I thought my talk, which was titled “Molecular Methods Against Malaria”, would make a nice story for others, so enjoy.
1 million. That’s around how many people die each year from malaria, with most victims mere children. In fact by the time my three minutes are up, up to 5 or 6 more people would have succumbed to this deadly disease. It’s also important to note that up to 800 million people a year get infected with malaria parasites. So this means that only about 1 in 800 who get malaria will die, however, the disease severity is so much so that it periodically completely debilitates those infected. This means infected people cannot work effectively, if at all, and therefore it also delivers a crippling blow to endemic nations economies. This information highlights just why malaria is poetically known as “the scourge of humanity”.
So how does one get malaria? Well the story starts with the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito (just like the one you see above). They inject the tiny single-celled parasites into your skin where they rapidly make their way to your liver via the bloodstream. At this point, the infected person is quite fine; however, once inside liver cells, the parasites change form and rapidly multiply in number, ultimately bursting forth back into the bloodstream, but this time capable of infecting red blood cells. The parasites invade the red cells, multiply and emerge to destroy the host cell and seek more. This causes cyclical high-grade fevers, fatigue and in some cases the parasites invade the brain to cause coma and death.
So where does my work fit into all of this? Well because it’s the blood stage of malaria that makes you severely sick due to parasitic invasion of your red blood cells, I’m interested in looking at the molecules these parasites use during invasion, with the aim of developing effective drugs and vaccines against them.
So how do we go about this? Well we have identified a crucial parasite protein complex that is essential for both parasite survival and is important for binding to red blood cell receptors that the parasite uses for entry. My doctoral research is focused on the elucidation of the molecular structure of the proteins that make up the complex and what parts of the protein are implicated in red cell receptor binding. We are using an array of exciting high tech equipment to do this, including nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (think of an MRI machine, but tipped on its side and used for looking at molecules not whole tissue structures) and X-ray crystallography, where we crystalize the proteins and fire high energy beams at them (traveling near the speed of light mind you). The way the beam diffracts off the crystals gives us vital information on the structure of said protein complex. I can also genetically engineer in mutations into the proteins to see how that interferes with their function. You see, if we know the structure of key parts of the proteins used by malaria parasites to cause disease, we can rationally design vaccines and drugs that we sorely need. So hopefully one day, the research myself and my colleagues around the world are engaged in will bring that million person per year death toll to zero, making humans the scourge of malaria.