Molecular Parasitology and Epidemiology

In the Molecular Parasitology - Epidemiology unit, we closely work with the Molecular Diagnostics Unit with which we share staff and publications. We collaborate also frequently with the Gene Regulation Unit. Our research falls into two main categories:

 

1. Basic research on the molecular biology of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum

2. Molecular epidemiological studies based on the findings from basic research

 

Within our unit we attempt to link results from the bench with observations from the field. For this reason, we conduct many of our studies at and with our partner institutions, such as the Ifakara Health Institute (IHI) in Tanzania or the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research (PNG IMR).

Our mission and vision is to enhance our understanding of P. falciparum and its interaction with the human host. Our research particularly emphasises on the early events after the parasite’s invasion into the host erythrocytes. There, we are especially interested in the variable antigens (PfEMP1s) and their corresponding genes (var genes), which enable the parasite to stick to host cells (a condition known as cytoadherence) and are considered to be the major virulence factors. We are investigating the expression of these genes in naturally infected individuals.
Our previous identification of two membrane-associated, histidine-rich proteins (MAHRP1 and MAHRP2) has prompted us to analyse the transport and trafficking of proteins, including PfEMP1, located at the Maurer’s clefts. We hope to understand the function of the variable antigens and their capacity to confer cytoadherence.

 

Applying transfection technology and transgenic parasites, we investigate the interaction of variable antigens with other proteins both outside and within the infected erythrocytes. With these efforts, we intend to assess the consequences, when transport of these antigens between parasite and surface is blocked.

Additionally, we are studying new vaccine candidates which have been identified using innovative bioinformatics approaches. These approaches include localisation studies, episomal tagged protein expression and gene knockout technology. To monitor drug resistance dynamics at the molecular level, we had been developing an innovative microarray-based tool to analyse drug resistance-associated single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which we extensively applied to samples of epidemiological studies from endemic countries.

 

Lately, we improved this microarray and included SNPs from cytochrome P450 (CYP) and N-acetyltransferase (NAT) genes, which are involved in drug metabolism. Now, we would like to make use of our findings to evaluate the contribution of the host metabolism to the modulation of drug efficacy.

 

By analysing Plasmodium molecular biology, and by improving our understanding of its epidemiology at the molecular level, we will deepen our knowledge on the parasite-host interaction and hopefully improve current interventions, such as new drugs or vaccines, to control the parasite and the devastating disease of malaria.

 

More detailed information can be found at the Swiss TPH biennial report.