A different approach to fighting malaria
“What that really means, in my opinion, is that we need to take a different approach,” says Professor Doolan.
She and her team at JCU are trying to gain a better understanding of the host-parasite interaction by creating detailed genetic profiles of both the parasite and the human immune response. They then use that information to develop new strategies to combat the parasite and eradicate the disease.
For example, the malaria parasite makes more than 5,500 proteins. Just picking one or two of these to make a vaccine leaves a lot of scope for the parasite to get around it. So instead, Professor Doolan says, “We’re trying to design a genome-based vaccine.”
Analysing the genetic blueprint of malaria
A full analysis of the parasite’s complete genetic blueprint – or genome – will provide a much better understanding of how those proteins function.
This knowledge can then guide the design of vaccines that incorporate multiple important proteins, and thus generate a strong and sustained immune response that the parasite cannot evade.
Researchers are also examining the human immune response to malaria, particularly during the ‘liver stage’, which takes place after the initial infection, but before symptoms develop. Evidence suggests that immune T-cells play an important role in determining whether or not a person gets ill.
How some people gain immunity to malaria
Professor Doolan wants to figure out why and how this information can be used to design an effective treatment.
She’s also intrigued by people who have become immune to the illness after a lifetime of exposure. “They won’t get sick, but they still have parasites circulating in their bloodstream,” she says.
By building a comprehensive genetic picture of the immune response during the liver stage of the infection, or in people who have some level of immunity to the disease, Professor Doolan hopes to identify which immune molecules and functions are important, and then therapeutically target these to protect people against malaria.
A related aspect of this work could also identify people who are particularly susceptible to infection and disease, as well as those who will respond well to vaccination or treatment.
Improving the health of millions
Professor Doolan’s approach to tackling malaria, including the platforms and technologies she’s developed along the way, could also be applied to other diseases, she says. “The core of my research is to try and improve the health of millions of people worldwide who are affected by either an infectious or chronic disease.”
Discover more about how Professor Doolan and the Centre for Molecular Therapeutics are developing innovative solutions to global public health problems.