Friday, February 12, 2010

New hope for a malaria vaccine!

Last week’s edition of Nature published some exciting advancements towards Malaria research. A laboratory in Australia, the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, identified an essential protein needed by the malaria parasite for survival. Additionally, the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis identified the same protein as being a potential vaccine target, which only further confirmed the findings in Australia.

Background While malaria can be caused from several different species of the protist Plasmodium, the most virulent form is caused by Plasmodium falciparum. When an individual is bitten by a malaria infected mosquito, the parasites are transmitted into the blood. The parasites enter the red blood cells (RBC) and immediately begin exporting hundreds of effector proteins (effectors bind to another protein thereby activating or inhibiting activity) into the RBC’s cytoplasm, in so doing the parasite alters their intracellular environment so as to evade an immune response, permitting their replication and spread of infection, thus ensuring survival.

Current Research The published research identifies a protein, Plasmepsin V, directly essential to the export of effector proteins into the cell. Plasmepsin V is a membrane-bound aspartic protease, which primes the effector proteins prior to export. It recognizes a particular “tag” on the proteins to be secreted and cleaves it off. The cleaved/primed protein is believed to bind to a chaperone protein which carries it to the membrane channel, where it is exported to the RBC’s intracellular space. In vitro assays demonstrated that by interfering with Plasmepsin V activity effector protein export is inhibited, thus preventing the spread of infection. Plasmepsin V makes for an excellent drug target for two reasons: its closest equivalent in humans is the very distantly related Beta Secretase, which would hopefully minimize any potential adverse side effects, and because this protein does not vary widely across the four different Plasmodium species.

Why is this significant?

Following information obtained from WHO World Malaria Report 2009

- half of the world’s population is at risk for malaria - an estimated 243 million cases occurred worldwide in 2008 - an estimated 863 thousand deaths occurred worldwide in 2008 - the damages of this disease continue to cripple any hope for economic development in Africa

Photo credit: WHO

Monday, February 8, 2010

more on Google trends

The Spanish National Epidemiology Center conducted a study Jan 2004—Feb 2009, evaluating the use of internet databases, such as Google insights, for tracking emerging infectious diseases. They compared the Google queries regarding Influenza-like-illnesses to reported cases. Their results suggest that internet databases and tools such as HealthMap (my new favorite website!) can be used as early warning signals for an outbreak in addition to standard surveillance systems.

Although published on the US CDC website, these results should not be taken too heavily by the general public, as is often done. I would imagine the results would be strongly biased based on a number of factors.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A is for Anthrax, B is for Borrelia burgdorferi, C is for Clostridium difficile...

Here is a blog I found which discusses science toys. What a great idea for educating young children about the invisible world: Giant Microbes! Pictured are some illnesses that have been previously discussed here.

EbolaTuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis)


The Shigella (bacteria which causes stomach ache) toy was given a 2008 Preferred Choice Award by Creative Child Magazine. Each toy comes with a card describing the microorganism and the illness it causes. Giant Microbes carries a variety of different viruses, bacteria, and other microscopic organisms. Becoming more common in classrooms, these plush "germs" make science fun and easier to explain for young children.