World Malaria Day (25 April) raises awareness of the global issues facing malaria today. With over 200 million new cases of the disease worldwide in 2015, 429,000 of which ended in death, the annual event marks the perfect opportunity to explore the themes it raises.
To go alongside our special article collection, we asked a leading malaria researcher to offer her thoughts World Malaria Day, and to reflect on the significance of her research.
Karine Le Roch, co-author of ‘The multifunctional autophagy pathway in the human malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum‘.
What are your thoughts on World Malaria Day?
We have made tremendous progresses over the past 20 years and showed that intensive campaigns to prevent and treat malaria can significantly reduced the number of infections and deaths per year. We went from over 3 million deaths per year in the late-1990s to less than 500,000 in 2017. However, our work will not be fully completed until malaria is eradicated for good. World Malaria Day is a crucial opportunity to remind us all that we still need to invest more time and money to identify and develop novel, improved and long lasting vector control, diagnostics, medicine and vaccine strategies to triumph against this devastating disease.
What are the prospects of finding a cure for malaria?
There are several new tools and affordable antimalarial drugs being developed right now by both academic laboratories and public-private partnerships, such as such as Medicines for Malaria Venture. These combine the expertise of the pharmaceutical industry with the basic research and field experience of the academic sector. While novel drugs and vaccines are in the developmental phases, we are facing significant challenges with parasites and mosquito vectors becoming resistant to most available drugs and vector control strategies. We need to stay one step ahead of the race against this pathogen. It is a battle that we will hopefully win within the next decade (or two).
Why do you think your research has had such an impact since its 2013 publication?
The malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, is a major cause of mortality in young children and pregnant women living in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. A major hurdle in understanding malaria has been to understand how the parasite controls its developmental stages. Despite the immense medical implications, the genetic and molecular basis of the parasite development remains, for the most part, unknown.
In the study, we were one of the first groups to examine the role of autophagy during the major development cycle of the parasite, including the sexual stages responsible for the transmission of the disease from human to mosquitoes and mosquitoes to human. While autophagy is a mechanism relatively well conserved in cells, we discovered considerable specific adaptation of this pathway in the malaria parasites that could be targeted for new therapeutic interventions.
We used a combination of state of the art experimental and genomics approaches to demonstrate that the parasites’ autophagy pathway has undergone dramatic changes compared to other organisms. Most importantly, we identified that the autophagy pathway is critical for biogenesis of a parasite specific organelle; the apicoplast, which has become a promising target for drug development.
Our work represents a major advancement in understanding the roles of the autophagy pathway in malaria parasite, which has implications for future antimalarial development.
What tips would you give early authors trying to gain prominence?
Work hard! Be determined, enthusiastic, and creative. And don’t be afraid to take risks to develop new ideas and to use new technologies, no matter what others tell you.