Current tools to combat malaria have yielded tremendous progress, but more remains to be done to meet the aspiration of eradication. It is critical to develop new tools that can be deployed rapidly to affected areas for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. We also need more efficacious and cost-effective interventions.
Robust life sciences activity is a distinctive and pivotal component of the academic agenda at the Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health. As part of the School’s From the Genes to the Globe Symposium Series, a flagship initiative of Dean Julio Frenk to integrate the School’s strengths across disciplines and advance a multidimensional understanding of public health challenges and the mechanisms of disease, Harvard’s Defeating Malaria initiative launched a Student Travel Fellowship designed to support outstanding masters and doctoral students conducting field-based research in malaria.
Following a School-wide call for applications, a Faculty Review Committee awarded two fellowships to students addressing a major public health problem in a new way. Lauren Childs, a Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Epidemiology, received an award to support her work at the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Kilifi, Kenya, with a focus on understanding the role of naturally-acquired immunity through the development of a within-host model of Plasmodium falciparum. Lauren’s research is conducted in collaboration with Caroline Buckee, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
A second Student Travel Fellowship award was granted to Perrine Marcenac, a graduate student in Biological Sciences in Public Health Program in the School’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases. Funds from the award allowed her to travel to the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé, in Burkina Faso, to analyze the molecular interplay between oogenesis and Plasmodium falciparum infections in Anopheles gambiae field populations. Perrine conducts her research in the laboratory of Flaminia Catteruccia, Associate Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
There have been major scientific advances leading to a greater understanding of the malaria parasite and its biology, however, research has largely focused on Plasmodium falciparum. Despite being a major cause of malaria disease outside of Africa, Plasmodium vivax has lagged behind both because it has a more complicated life cycle and because there are few experimental techniques available to strengthen our understanding of this parasite.
On Tuesday, April 2, 2013, a scientific symposium titled, Plasmodium vivax: The Last Parasite Standing, brought together experts from the field as speakers, panelists and members of the audience. Hosted at the Broad Institute, the symposium featured research presentations and a panel discussion on the challenges to P. vivax malaria eradication.
For more information, view the event program.
As a chemical biologist, Ralph Mazitschek is interested in applying his research to scientific topics largely neglected by industrial research due to lack of financial incentive. His strong interest in malaria, has led him to focus his work on the discovery of novel antimalarials and identifying previously untargeted pathways that are critical to the Plasmodium parasite and suitable for chemotherapeutic intervention.
Dr. Mazitschek is interested in understanding biological systems at the molecular level. By using small organic compounds to study complex biological processes, his lab aims to provide insights that standard genetic or biochemical approaches are not offering.
An Assistant Professor at the Harvard Medical School and Co-Director of the Chemical Biology Platform at the Center for Systems Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Mazitschek was recently awarded a Grand Challenges grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the topic area of New Approaches for the Interrogation of Anti-malarial Compounds. His project will explore whether tRNA-synthetases inhibitors – enzymes essential to the survival of the malaria parasite – can serve as a target for antimalarial drugs. He is one of numerous collaborators working with Professor Dyann Wirth, Chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, on antimalarial drug research. The combination of complementary expertise in chemical biology, malaria biology and Plasmodium genetics, will accelerate the development of novel medicines.
A new scientific paradigm has emerged – by changing the focus from disease control to elimination and eradication, the research priorities have shifted. Stopping transmission is an essential step towards eradicating the disease, and there is a need for a comprehensive approach, bringing cutting-edge science to bear on the problem.
Harvard University has the facilities and resources across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Medical School, the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and other affiliated institutions to research new treatments and technologies, and build on the existing knowledge base. In addition, the University can use its expertise in diverse areas such as health policy, decision science, and health systems engineering, to partner effectively with others in the public and private sector to translate knowledge into action.
Defeating Malaria has a number of priority areas of focus within science and its translation:
- Changing the research paradigm from discoveries for disease control to discoveries for eradication
- Leveraging basic science for the development of novel diagnostics, vaccines, and other treatments
- Enabling translation of knowledge to policymakers, practitioners and the public
- Supporting the core research objectives of the malaria community
- Partnering with public and private sector groups to accelerate bringing new products for malaria prevention and treatment to market
Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs)
RDTs present their own set of challenges – low sensitivity for detecting P. vivax, weak screening tools to detect very low density parasitemia in the field, and risks of stock-outs to name but a few of these technical and management gaps.
Faculty from across the University conduct research in a range of fields related to malaria control and eradication. Researchers focus not only on developing new tools that can be deployed rapidly for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, but also on understanding the societal context in which endemic areas operate and on applying rigorous business approaches to technology distribution and adoption.
In order to control and eliminate malaria, a deeper understanding of how and where the disease spreads is crucial. Data on transmission has historically been hard to find. Professor Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health uses a range of modeling techniques to understand the relationship between the evolution of pathogens and the epidemiological patterns of infection and disease among human populations. Buckee was honored as a 2013 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy for her use of mobile phone data to study human movement, enabling public health workers to target the sources of malaria outbreaks and potentially prevent future ones.
From a health systems perspective, Rifat Atun, Professor of Global Health Systems and Director of the Global Health Systems Cluster at the Department of Global Health and Population, is interested in advancing and integrating conceptual and practical approaches to the complex problems of health systems. In the context of malaria eradication, Professor Atun’s research and expertise contribute to a deeper understanding of the process of managing the transition from programmatic control of malaria to an integrated malaria eradication approach within health systems.
Professors Caroline Buckee (left) and Rifat Atun (right) are among numerous faculty across the university applying their expertise to addressing the complex challenges malaria presents.
Student Travel Fellowship
In order to gain a truly multidimensional understanding of disease, Harvard is dedicated to integrating biomedical, epidemiological, social, behavioral, environmental, and policy research in pursuing solutions to some of the most profound health problems currently facing humankind.
To support this innovative research, Defeating Malaria launched a Student Travel Fellowship to support masters and doctoral students conducting field research in malaria. In 2015, two students, whose work exemplifies the scientific interests and values of Defeating Malaria, were granted awards that enabled them to conduct valuable research into different aspects of the disease.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is committed to providing expertise, technology transfer, and training to scientists from around the world in order to better inform policies and practice toward global malaria control, surveillance, and elimination.
Led by Dr. Regina Rabinovich, ExxonMobil Malaria Scholar in Residence at Harvard University, the Malaria Eradication Scientific Alliance (MESA) is initiating a ‘refresh’ of the 2011 findings of the Malaria Eradication Research Agenda (malERA). MESA’s goal is to update the multi-disciplinary malERA agenda to enable the global malaria community, public health advocates, and global health leaders to accelerate action toward malaria elimination and eradication. Six expert panels have been established, each chaired by a leading expert in the field. The Basic Science and Enabling Technologies Panel is chaired by Dyann Wirth, Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Diseases Chair, Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and co-chaired by Elizabeth Winzeler, Professor at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine, and Dr. Lee Hall, Chief of Parasitology and International Programs Branch, Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Panelists are responsible for examining current hypotheses and identifying new priority research areas to accelerate progress. Their recommendations, based on a convening meeting held at Harvard University in 2015, will be published in PloS Medicine in 2016 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
SNP Barcode Workshop in Boston, MA
The annual workshop brought together 20 laboratory scientists from 13 countries.
Malaria Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) Barcode Workshop
Hosted by the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, the annual Malaria Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) Barcode Workshop focuses on practical applications of the Broad’s SNP barcode approach for P. falciparum and P. vivax in laboratory and field settings. During the weeklong workshop held at the Broad Institute in July 2016, the 20 laboratory scientists from 13 countries engaged in theoretical, wet lab, and computational analysis of SNP applications of the approach, detailed troubleshooting and analysis, and adaptation to unique lab settings. As part of the hands-on training experience, scientists had an opportunity to genotype a limited number of parasite samples from their own laboratories and work with Harvard-Broad experts to interpret the data findings.
Genomics Training in Lusaka, Zambia
Laboratory and classroom-based training at the National Malaria Control Centre.
Genomic Approaches Toward Malaria Control, Surveillance, and Elimination
In January 2013, Harvard University co-organized a 4-day workshop on Genomic Approaches Toward Malaria Control, Surveillance, and Elimination at the National Malaria Control Centre in Lusaka, Zambia. Taught by a range of experts from Harvard University, the Broad Institute, the Zambian Ministry of Health, MACEPA/PATH, and other field-based research organizations, the workshop allowed participants to gain knowledge of key principles and approaches in malaria epidemiology and transmission, and to learn about the role of genomics and genomic tools to assess changes in malaria transmission. Didactic and hands-on laboratory training provided participants with new skills and knowledge about genomic techniques for improved malaria surveillance.
On Monday December 5, 2011, the committee in the House of Representatives that focuses on global health held a hearing on malaria called “Fighting Malaria, Progress and Challenges.” The hearing focused on the progress that has been made in preventing and treating malaria and examine challenges around issues such as delivery of services, treatment and funding. In this clip, Dr. Regina Rabinovich, ExxonMobil Malaria Scholar in Residence at Harvard University, and former Director of Infectious Diseases Unit at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, discusses some of the progress that has taken place.
Plasmodium falciparum – Phenotypes to Genotypes
In collaboration with the Broad Institute, Cheikh Anta Diop University, The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Malaria Initiative, and Harvard Initiative for Global Health, the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, convened a triennial, regional advanced genomics and bioinformatics workshop from January 18-22, 2010 in Dakar, Senegal.
The Plasmodium falciparum – Phenotypes to Genotypes didactic and practical training workshop provided academic mentorship, practical training, and professional development to malaria research scientists from Senegal and neighboring West African countries.