Remarkable in red – Four new PhDs leaving their mark on malaria drug discovery

Posted on May 31, 2022

The rapid emergence of malaria parasite resistance towards current antimalarial drugs threatens malaria elimination. There is a need for new antimalarial drugs with novel modes of action against all stages of the parasite, including the disease transmissible stage. 

Four PhDs from the Malaria Parasite Molecular Laboratory (M2PL) research group in the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology were conveyed at the Autumn Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences’ graduation ceremony. Doctors Jessica Connacher, Janie Duvenhage, Rudi van Wyk and Hilde von Grüning, have made significant contributions to the parasite drug resistance challenge under the mentorship of Prof Lyn-Marie Birkholtz SARChI Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control. In addition, four MSc and six honours degrees were also conveyed. 

Jessica explored the epigenetic mechanisms driving the development of transmissible stages of the human malaria parasite. The study substantially advances researchers’ current understanding of epigenetic regulation in Plasmodium falciparum parasites and has broader implications for the potential development of transmissionblocking interventions for malaria. Parasite-infected red blood cells can adhere to specific tissues and organs in the human host, causing the most severe and lethal malaria cases.

Janie developed malariaspecific tracers that allow the parasites to be studied with positron emission tomography imaging, which could aid in investigating host-parasite mechanisms that govern malaria pathogenicity. The process of antimalarial drug discovery is time-consuming and resource-intensive.

Rudi used high throughput next-generation RNA-sequencing technology to explore the gametocytogenesis transcriptome of P. falciparum.

Through chromatin proteomics, Hilde’s work fundamentally reshapes the understanding of gene regulation in P. falciparum by demonstrating that the parasite’s histone “chemical barcode” is unique to different life cycle forms involved many unique regulatory proteins and can be drug targeted effectively.

The M2PL forms part of the Parasite Control Cluster of the University of Pretoria Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC). 

- Author Taneshka Kruger
Published by Taneshka Kruger

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