(Interview took place in 2015)
1. How has malaria affected your life?
Today, I’m semi-immune from malaria, but I have suffered many times in my life. Many of my relatives living in endemic regions have suffered too and continue to suffer. As I work in malaria research, they often come to me for advice. Just this year one of my sisters called me to say her daughter, who is 4-years old, had malaria. Luckily, she was able to take her to the hospital, where she was treated.
2. Can you explain what area of malaria research you are working on and why it is so important?
We are developing a vaccine that will protect children under 5 years. It’s important, as they are the ones affected the most by severe malaria because of their lack of exposure to the malaria antigens.
We’re working on a vaccine candidate by investigating the P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1 (PfEMP1). We know that the pathogenicity of severe malaria is associated with the ability of the parasite to bind to the endothelium lining of human erythrocyte cells. Using parasite cultures in the lab, we are trying to identify which part of the parasite protein is associated with binding to human cells. The idea is to develop a candidate molecule able to mimic this and so block the binding of the parasite.
3. What do you see as the greatest challenge regarding malaria elimination and eradication?
The biggest challenge is the immense diversity of the Plasmodium falciparum genome. Because of its diversity it can easily develop resistance to drugs, which makes its elimination particularly challenging. Also, the parasite’s lifecycle is incredibly complex, which means we will need more than one vaccine or medicine to target the different stages, including the liver stage, blood stage and gametocyte etc. Having said that, I think through a joint effort we can defeat it.
4. What was the highlight of the ECTMIH conference for you?
It was a very well organised conference that allowed me to meet many different people doing different malaria research. It gave me an insight into the areas where I need to improve. For example, I met a friend from Nigeria who is doing similar research, working on a different region of the same gene. The conversation with him helped me to improve our study design and analytical methods. It made me eager to learn more, not just about my research but also what other people do. I was happy to hear the talk of Prof. Bousema from the Netherlands. He is working on a vaccine focusing on Pf. 25 and 450, which is undergoing trials now.
5. What are your career goals and how will the ECTMIH help you to fulfil these?
In the short-term, I’d like to finish my PhD and identify an antigen that could in the long-term be used to develop a vaccine candidate to protect childhood malaria. I want to continue as a researcher collaborating with other experts for the betterness of the people in need and later to become a well experienced researcher/academician and professor in a University.