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ND biology professors collaborate on malaria

Anna Boarini | Friday, November 12, 2010

Notre Dame’s research on malaria is a “web of interaction,” involving multidisciplinary research and collaboration, biology professor Dr. Michael Ferdig said.


Currently, there are multiple faculty members researching malaria and the mosquito vector that carries it.


Biology professor Dr. Nora Besansky researches the African mosquitoes that carry human malignant malaria. Her current research examines evolutionary changes of the mosquito Anopheles Gambiae.


Ferdig focuses on the vector, studying the parasite itself. His research looks at the malaria parasite and its resistance to drugs.


Together, with other researchers and scientists at Notre Dame, these biologists have been able to comprehensively look at the cause, the mosquito vector and the effect of malaria.


“Malaria is a parasitic disease that is characteristic of poorer parts of the world, especially the tropics,” Besansky said.


There are four types of malaria and while all cause harm, only one, malignant malaria, is always fatal, Besansky said.


What makes malaria different than other vector-carried diseases is the complex life cycle of the parasite.


“It would take me about 2 1/2 hours to tell you malaria’s lifecycle,” Ferdig said.


Besansky said when a mosquito bites a human, the parasite first enters from the bite and then travels to the liver. After it leaves the liver, the parasite attacks the red blood cells. The red blood cells than burst and the parasite can re-enter the blood stream or attack another part of the body.


What makes malaria a unique parasite is that both humans and mosquitoes carry it.


“The mosquito can transmit the parasite to a human, but if the mosquito bites again, it can take the parasite back into its system in the blood meal,” Besansky said.


One of the cutting edge research projects that is unique to Notre Dame is the genomic mapping of both the malaria parasite and the mosquito vector. While the human genome has already been mapped, the genomic research going on at Notre Dame is highly specialized and important to understanding infectious disease in general.


“Once we know all the genes of the vector, the parasite and the human and know how they interact, we can understand how drugs would work to stop the parasite,” Ferdig said. “This is why the genome stuff is so powerful. If you can break the cycle somewhere in the malaria life cycle, you can end the disease.”