Malaria is the cause for nearly one million deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization’s web site.
However, Anna Drexler hopes that will change in time due to her research.
A UC Davis entomology doctorate student, Drexler is a co-author of a recently published article in PLoS Pathogens for her research about malaria-resistant mosquitoes. She’s also a recipient of a National Institute of Health (NIH) research fellowship for her research into these mosquitoes.
The article has already gained international attention and has been featured on BBC and ABC, according to the entomology department’s web site.
The California Aggie interviewed Drexler over the phone about her research and the possible future applications.
1. How did all this research with the mosquitoes get started?
We had a joint grant from the University of Georgia. It was collaboration with the University of Arizona to study the effects of insulin signaling in mosquitoes in malaria infections. We infect the mosquitoes here on campus. It’s quite a process. Not very many labs in the country maintain these parasite infections. We are actually using mosquitoes that infect humans.
2. How many mosquitoes are you working with?
We have a mosquito colony. So they are made in the Arizona lab and maintained at the UCD lab. We made transgenic mosquitoes, those made resistant to parasite infection, that have eyes that glow red so we can identify them. Essentially we breed these mosquitoes to other non-transgenic mosquitoes. We feed them a special diet modified off of fish food and continually maintain their life cycle. We have maybe 10,000 total in the colony cage.
3. So, when you infect these mosquitoes, you infect them with malaria?
It’s a parasite strain that causes the most severe form of malaria. There are five different strains that affect humans. The one we work with is prevalent across Africa but particularly Sub-Saharan Africa.
4. How prevalent is this strain?
I think most recent estimates are 300 to 500 million cases every year. Most of these cases are children under five years old. And there are more than one million deaths every year. The way that this disease impacts people’s daily lives is incredible.
5. What are the general symptoms of malaria?
Well, that’s more of the clinical end. But the general symptoms are extremely high recurrent fevers, general malaise, shakes, damage to the liver and anemia. It impairs cognitive function and death. But it’s really characterized by high fevers. But in our lab we work on the mosquito end [to see] whether there’s a way to interrupt the transmission [of malaria to other mosquitoes].
6. Were you and the other researchers expecting the results, which successfully showed the interruption of the malaria transmission at the onset of this experiment?
It was kind of a surprise. We predicted that the opposite would happen. We initially started looking at this [insulin signaling] pathway. We said, ‘okay we’re going to modify this pathway and make these mosquitoes live for a shorter time period and affect the ability to transmit.’ But when we started doing initial tests [the mosquitoes] had no infections at all. The next generation could not be infected at all.
7. What were your reactions to these results?
I actually didn’t believe [the results] at first. I thought maybe something’s wrong with this experiment. So we repeated it a lot of times… now the question is why are [the mosquitoes] resistant?
8. What are the implications for future research?
Well, it’s the first time that anyone’s ever made mosquitoes immune to malaria infections so there are many places to go from that. To really understand the processes involved is the next step. It’s unclear now whether we can release these mosquitoes into the field but [the research] is a step in the right direction. [We may be able to] bring about research into new drugs or pesticide that help interrupt malaria transmission.
9. What do you think about how much attention the research is garnering internationally?
I feel really lucky to be a part of this work. There were a number of people who contributed. Just being part of this team is incredible. I feel really lucky and really proud that the work is getting out there and recognized and that other researchers can use this as a jumping point.
10. In what directions will you take your research with the NIH research fellowship?
I’m going to continue to work in this field. I believe that malaria is a very important disease to be working on right now. I really enjoy working in the Luckhart lab that is doing phenomenal work on insect transmission. I hope that it makes a difference.
JESSY WEI can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.