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Cellular biology researcher uncovers humans’ natural weapon against malaria

Tuesday, September 20, 2022 - 9:29am
By:
Alan Flurry

Parasitologist Samarchith “Sam” Kurup has been awarded a five-year National Institutes of Health grant to study the natural immune response to the Plasmodium parasite in liver cells, with designs on uncovering how the human immune system naturally fights malaria in the liver stage will lead to an effective malaria vaccine. Our colleagues in the Office of research share the story:

Malaria is one of the most studied parasitic diseases, yet the Plasmodium parasite that causes it keeps evading attempts to treat the infection in humans. This is largely due to its complex life cycle and the ability of the parasite to evolve drug resistance. In addition to life stages that occur in the mosquito, which transmits the Plasmodiumparasite to humans, there are two life stages in humans—a short phase of initial development in the liver, followed by an infection of the blood cells that causes clinical disease.

“A lot of research has been focused on the blood stage in humans, as this is when a person is symptomatic,” said Kurup, assistant professor of cellular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “But we now recognize that if we want to stop malaria, we need to stop it in its tracks in the liver before accessing the blood, and for that we need to understand the liver stage.”

“The liver stage is short and can be difficult to study in the laboratory,” he said. “There are also practical and ethical limitations to studying the liver stage of malaria in humans. We are hoping to tease apart the basic principles of immune responses during this stage using the mouse model.”

Kurup’s preliminary studies have shown that a group of signaling proteins called type 1 interferons play a role in the destruction of Plasmodium parasites in the liver. His newly funded project will fill a gap in the malaria knowledge base by using a combination of in vitro study and in vivo experiments to determine the molecular processes that eliminate Plasmodium parasites in liver cells. His group recently developed a transgenic parasite line that can be used to genetically alter its host cell.

“This strain is a game changer for our line of research because we can now determine how our liver cells would naturally eliminate the parasite, and maybe why it sometimes fails,” he said.

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Image: photo of Sam Kurup by Lauren Corcino

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