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USF professor finds protein to stop malaria

Malaria causes more than 1 million deaths a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Professor John Adams and his colleagues in USF’s global health department recently announced a study regarding the discovery of a protein they say is critical to the transmission of malaria from the host mosquito to humans.

Adams said the protein, called MAEBL, is essential for the life cycle of the parasite, and blocking the protein could stop the disease before it’s transmitted into humans.

Fabian Saenz, co-author of the study, said the focus was genetically modifying the malaria parasite to disrupt the MAEBL genome so the protein could not be expressed within the organism.

Researchers then fed this modified form of the parasite to uninfected mosquitoes and found that it did not appear in the mosquitoes’ salivary glands. Therefore, the modified parasite could not be transferred by mosquito bites.

According to the CDC there are two kinds of malaria, Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum, both of which are single-celled parasites and not viruses as is commonly assumed. MAEBL is a protein in the falciparum variety.

Adams said his research began with vivax, the less common form of malaria. He began by studying what is called the “Duffy blood group genotype,” a genotype that must be positive for a person to contract the vivax form of the disease. He said when it was discovered that people of primarily African descent are Duffy-negative and could not contract the vivax parasite, researchers realized specific interactions between the parasite and the body were responsible for its transmission.

“A lot of proteins are expressed in later stages of development without any obvious reasons,” Adams said, “If you can identify things which are essential that’s a weakness that can be exploited.”

Saenz said that though the research does not have immediate application, it is possible that mosquitoes could eventually be genetically modified to be unable to receive MAEBL, making them unable to transmit the falciparum parasite.

“That this is a essential protein makes it a very important study point for the future, because if there is not that protein the transmission can be stopped,” Saenz said. “It may give some hope for future transmission blocking strategies and preventing the spread of the disease.”