Malaria Parasite Molecular Laboratory (M2PL)

Research Leader - Prof L Birkholtz

Co-Investigator - Dr J Niemand

Research focus - To identify and validate unique biological processes in the malaria parasite and its mosquito vector to develop sustainable control tools to eliminate the disease

Malaria remains one of the most devastating diseases worldwide, with almost 40% of the world’s population living under the constant risk of malaria infections. This is particularly true for sub-Saharan Africa where malaria is a major public health, socio-economic and developmental challenge.

As part of the University of Pretoria Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control and as DST/NRF SARChI South African Research Chair in ‘Sustainable Malaria Control’, our group’s research focus on the physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology of malaria parasites. We identify biochemical differences between the malaria parasite and the human host and evaluate which of these are potential an Achilles heel for the parasite. Once we know this, we use this information to identify novel antimalarial chemotherapeuticals that can be used in a sustainable fashion to overcome the continual threat of drug resistance. Our group uniquely focus on both the pathogenic forms of the parasite (where we need to identify chemotherapeuticals to save infected patients) and also the transmissible forms of the parasite (where we describe drugs with transmission-blocking activity). By focussing on both these aspects, we can deliver drugs that can be used to save lives and simultaneously block the malaria transmission cycle, and therefore lead to elimination of the disease.

Our current expertise lies in systems biology approaches to discover druggable targets and processes in the malaria parasite, and we rely on both structural (protein biochemistry and structure determination) and functional genomics (epigenetics, transcriptomics and gene manipulation) to do so. We have the largest malaria parasite cultivation facility in South Africa, where we can produce all life cycle forms of malaria parasites associated with human infections. We use this facility to also run a comprehensive antimalarial drug screening platform, unique in its kind as we can screen for drugs able to kill all these life cycle stages.

As SARChI Chair, expertise in malaria control in South Africa is therefore harnessed to enable sustained malaria control particularly in the African context and contribute to the global Malaria Eradication Agenda. Our work is nationally pioneering and influential in the commitment of South Africa to attempt to eliminate malaria from its borders. Due to the innovative nature of the work, students in the program are trained in scare skills related to malaria parasite biology, medicinal biochemistry and drug discovery in Africa.

 

Published by Annel Smit

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