Malaria Research Institute to Hold Conference at Montgomery County Campus
The Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute Future of Malaria Research Symposium focuses on presentations by young scientists and emerging leaders in all areas of malaria research. The event is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 4, at the university’s Montgomery County Campus. (Registration is closed.)
Hopkins Happenings asked two of the students involved in the symposium to discuss the Malaria Institute, their research and the importance of studying this disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Giovanna Carpi is a postdoctoral research fellow and Hugo Juhn is a Ph.D. candidate in the Bloomberg School of Public Health Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology.
Hopkins Happenings: What is the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute?
Carpi: The JHMRI brings together empirical and field scientists from a variety of disciplines to collaborate and innovate in the area of malaria research with the aim to support global malaria eradication efforts. The JHMRI-affiliated research teams study biological aspects of malaria, comprising all three organisms involved in the malaria system, the parasites, mosquitoes and humans, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Among the missions of the JHMRI is to train young scientists and build research capacity on the ground in malaria-endemic countries as exemplified by the Macha Research Institute in Southern Zambia. These resources have been leveraged to acquire extramural funding and extend our research capacity. The International Centers for Excellence in Malaria Research in Southern Africa is a good example of this.
Jhun: The JHMRI is a group of scientists that work on working out the molecular mechanisms at play with the malaria parasite. The group is quite diverse, with expertise ranging from biochemistry to entomology to immunology. By having weekly seminar sessions throughout the year and organizing larger events open to other institutions, the hope is to broaden the knowledge base of all who study malaria in the hopes of eradicating the parasite.
Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about the upcoming malaria conference. What do you hope attendees learn?
Carpi: The Future of Malaria Research meeting is sponsored by JHMRI and is one-day meeting attended by malaria researchers and stakeholders across the DC-Baltimore area and beyond, and aims to provide a platform for young scientists and emerging leaders to share their research with peers and established investigators. We expect approximately 150 participants and expect this meeting will foster productive discussions between our speakers and attendees and will provide novel perspectives on key questions, gaps and challenges in the study and elimination of malaria. We believe this meeting will be a source of inspiration to our young attendees. This meeting will bring together researchers with different expertise and focus across the breadth of malaria biology and transmission, hopefully encouraging an integrated approach to the study of malaria.
Jhun: The conference was begun in the hopes of giving younger investigators an opportunity to present their work to the larger malaria community. Most conferences typically skew more in favor of established scientists presenting their work, but we hope to skew it younger in the hopes of getting younger scientists more experience in presenting their work, as well give an opportunity for graduating students and post-docs to network with established scientists in the field. Scientifically speaking, we continue to work to try to broaden the understanding of all our specialized scientists in the hopes of crosspollination between fields to generate new ideas and challenge old ones.
Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about your research.
Carpi: I am fascinated by the history contained within the parasites’ genomes. I use this information to ask questions about how Plasmodium falciparum parasites disperse and move between mosquito and human hosts, and whether malaria-control interventions (i.e. indoor residual spraying) have the intended impact of reducing parasite populations as a result of mosquito population reduction. I am conducting a study in a malaria-endemic region in northern Zambia where malaria transmission remains high despite implementation of control interventions. I am adapting a method that I previously developed for a malaria-like parasite (Babesia microti) transmitted by ticks in North America, with the aim to capture and deep sequence Plasmodium falciparum genomesdirectlyfrom individual field-collected mosquitoes. This approach will inform our understanding of the diversity of malaria parasites at the transmission interface to ultimately inform transmission dynamics and prediction of parasite persistence.
Jhun: My work looks at the importance of one particular molecular pathway in the parasite. The parasite attaches a specific molecule to three of its proteins to perform important biochemistry, and this attachment seems to be both unique and important to the parasite. By figuring out the molecular mechanisms at play, we hope to identify possible drug targets, as well as expand some of the broader implications to other pathogens that use this pathway.
Hopkins Happenings: Why are you studying malaria? How did you become interested in this subject?
Carpi: For many years I studied vector-borne diseases, but my recent fascination with the malaria system is two-fold. First, the World Health Organization estimates that about 3.2 billion people, nearly half the world’s population, remain at risk of malaria. In 2015 alone, there were 214 million new cases of the disease and more than 400,000 malaria-related deaths. Malaria is notoriously difficult to control as it is prevalent in low-income and low-resource settings and especially in sub-Saharan Africa where disease prevention and control remains a huge challenge. Second, malaria represents an extraordinarily complex system, involving three very different organisms: the parasites, mosquitoes, and people who are further complicated by interactions with the environment. My intuition is there is a critical need for advances in novel genomic approaches to understand these complex biological relationships, and inform ecological and evolutionary processes shaping malaria parasite spatial and temporal patterns and ultimately the epidemiological impact. Parasite genomic surveillance, my area of expertise, will undoubtedly be fundamental in understanding malaria and parasite evolutionary biology and transmission, and development of effective and sustainable diagnostics and control measures.
Jhun: To paraphrase JFK, I study malaria because it is hard. The parasite is complicated, confounds many of the molecular tools at our disposal and flouts canonical biology and biochemistry. It is also one of the major drivers of human suffering on the planet, and epitomizes the disjoint between the developed and underdeveloped worlds. The world will need an army of ambitious, intelligent and driven people to try to solve the problem of malaria, and I want to be part of that effort.
Hopkins Happenings: Why is the study of malaria an important public health pursuit?
Carpi: The numbers indicated above speak to the global burden of malaria and the significance of this disease. WHO is committed to elimination of malaria in several affected countries by 2020, however several key challenges remain. Key threats to malaria elimination are increasing insecticide resistance in the mosquito vectors, human (and therefore parasite) population movement across borders that contributes to malaria importation from endemic to less endemic areas and drug resistance in the parasites.
Jhun: Where malaria is endemic, it kills or maims children, and is one of the driving forces that keeps endemic areas poor. By extinguishing hope for the future, the possibility of a strong workforce and economy is extinguished, and the malaise of death hangs over all who survive. Places where poverty and death are endemic are also places of human exploitation and the genesis of terrorism. Human suffering, like malaria, is an infectious disease, and the idea that problems that affect endemic areas are confined to those areas is naive and shortsighted. Successful public health interventions are essential for building a thriving community that can contribute to the world.