Year of selection 2011
Institution Institut Pasteur
While malaria has been wiped out in many parts of the world, the disease continues to ravage and kill victims in Africa and Southeast Asia, causing an estimated 627,000 fatalities a year according to the World Health Organization. The complexity of the life cycle of the malaria parasite helps explain why scientists have not yet developed a vaccine to protect malaria victims, some 80% of whom are children. Now though, a research team headed by Prof. Robert Menard is seeking to uncover the still mysterious workings of the malaria parasite and in so doing, provide the fundamental understanding needed for vaccine development.
Widely recognized for his groundbreaking work stalking and even filming the malaria parasite in real time as it invades the human body, Menard is now focusing on the critical first step of the disease, when the Trojan Horse of malaria has entered the body but not yet launched its destructive cycle. This is when the malaria parasite is injected in the skin and enters the human bloodstream from a mosquito’s saliva, but before it has reached the liver. Once the parasite reaches the liver, it infects and kills liver cells, then returns to the bloodstream to infect and kill red blood cells and the disease takes its often deadly toll.
Research has shown that it is possible to disrupt the parasite’s life cycle during the relatively short first stage, and therefore prevent the ensuing attack on the red blood cells. But existing research results are merely empirical; no one yet understands how the mechanism works. This is what Menard and his team want to figure out and why their approach is so interesting. Understanding exactly how and why certain antigens protect against the malaria parasite would provide the fundamental knowledge needed to develop a vaccine.
What’s more, using powerful molecular genetics and imaging techniques, Menard aims to take the process even further by actually testing antigens individually and evaluating their respective effectiveness. The goal is to identify the most effective antigen for use as the foundation for the malaria vaccine that has eluded medical science for so long.