Ian Bathurst Global Health Travel Award recipient – Simone da Silva Santos

Simone da Silva Santos
Simone da Silva Santos, Junior researcher, Fundação Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Current area of research: genetic basis for innate immunity

1. What is the burden of malaria in Brazil?

Malaria is a big problem in Brazil. We have around 60% of all cases on the continent here, in 2010 for example, there were more than 300,000 cases reported. It mainly occurs in the Amazonian Basin where the mosquitoes that transmit the disease are found in large numbers.

2. How has malaria affected your life?

I have been lucky, as I have never had malaria. Most of the researchers that work in Barcelos have had malaria at least two times, vivax or falciparum, or both. In the rural area of Barcelos, most children under 5 years had malaria at least two times and I have seen some pregnant women with malaria.

3. What area of malaria biology are you researching and why it is so important?

I obtained my PhD exploring the genetic basis of the immune response to malaria in the Amazonian population between 2008–2011. The study was the first of its kind in the Amazon. Working with the Welcome Trust for Human Genetics and the University of Oxford, we were able to identify a number of genetic differences in the population, either leading to increased susceptibility or resistance to Plasmodium infection to clinical malaria and asymptomatic infection.

The research involved going into the field and taking blood samples from patients with and without malaria. We would then analyse their genetic code in search of markers that correlate with increased susceptibility, resistance to clinical malaria or evolution of clinical malaria.

So far, we have identified five genes associated with reduced risk or protection from clinical malaria and asymptomatic infection. Research into these genes could help us develop tools to enable us to reproduce this innate immunity, in the form of vaccine. We are now continuing the research in collaboration with scientists in Mozambique and Kenya.

4. What have been the benefits of attending this drug discovery conference for you?

For me, the main benefits were the opportunities to learn from and make contact with experts. I enjoyed learning more about new strategies to control malaria, new drugs being tested, and new epidemiological and genetic findings, as well as sharing my own.

5. What are your career goals and how will the Keystone meeting help you to fulfil these? 

My near term goal is to complete our current genetic association studies. Long-term, together with colleagues at the institute, we plan to identify the Plasmodium genes responsible for the development of resistance to mefloquine in Brazil. The goal is to be able to use this drug effectively in the therapeutic antimalarial regimens.

At the Keystone meeting I had the chance to discuss and compare our data with other researchers with more expertise which has really given my research a boost.