Andrea Ruecker: Blocking malaria transmission
In the falciparum malaria parasite cycle, the gametocyte stages are responsible for the transmission from person to mosquito, then to other persons. A better understanding of how gametocytes respond to malaria treatments would help us block transmission and ultimately eliminate malaria.
I’m Andrea Ruecker and I’m a postdoctoral researcher here at the malaria department in MORU in Bangkok.
Malaria is very unusual because it has a very complicated life cycle. Usually when you are infected with malaria you have the two different stages inside your red blood cells. You have the one stage that makes you very sick, we call that the asexual stage, this is when you have the disease symptoms and this is the one we have to treat otherwise you will be very sick and you may die. But at the same time you also develop these other stages inside the red blood cells which are sort of dormant; they don’t cause any disease symptoms but these are the stages - we call them gametocyte stages - which are responsible for the infectivity into the mosquito and they are solely responsible for the transmission from person to person - person to mosquito, then to another person.
We are trying to stop malaria spread by treating the patient that is sick with malaria, not just only treating the disease symptoms but also giving the person a drug that then kills those gametocyte stages, so those gametocytes can’t infect a mosquito.
I’m enjoying this research because I really want to make a difference, I want to help people and I want to help eliminate malaria. I don’t think we can eliminate malaria unless we look at the whole package of the malaria parasite, which includes the transmission stages. Their lifecycle is very intriguing and the cell biology, from a cell biological point of view, looks very exciting. I’m trying to figure out in the lab, when I treat them with drugs, how we can stop them from developing further and we can look at this in a very fine setting in the lab. It’s just very exciting to look at them and trying to then feed that back into the field and then hopefully have an impact.
The challenges particularly in this kind of work is that we are growing those transmission stages - the gametocytes - in the lab. In a human body it takes approximately 8 to 10 or 12 days to develop before they can actually infect the mosquito to then spread malaria, and we have to grow them in the lab which takes approximately 2 weeks. But their viability is very delicate and sometimes we grow those stages for 2 weeks and then they’re not viable so we can’t do any experiments with it so they are very challenging to grow on a day to day basis.
Our research is really important because if we want to understand malaria transmission, we need to understand those transmission stages - the gametocytes - and we need to understand how they respond to drugs and vaccines. We also need to understand how they respond under the current setting of drug resistance and how drug resistance spreads. This is a very unique approach because not many places have the tools that we developed previously. We want to be able to constantly cross talk between the lab and the field and that is why I think our work really is fitting right in translational research and medicine.
This interview was recorded in March 2018