Published November 2018
This September I attended the Australian Society for Parasitology Conference. This research reflection represents a sample of the talks I attended which furthered my understanding of the breadth of parasitological research.
I was intrigued by Christina Spry’s talk about using a single drug to kill Plasmodium and mosquitos. They have identified that the drugs used to provide protection from fleas and ticks in animals can inhibit P. falciparum growth in vitro, and also have an effect on vectors. Although they are still trying to determine the efficacy of the drug ‘Spinosad’ against Plasmodium in vivo, the data against mosquitoes is compelling. I had not previously considered the possibility of using established orally- administered animal insecticides to treat and prevent malaria in humans. Although parts of my project are also based on repurposing drugs for malaria intervention strategies, this study represents a different approach. In a conversation after the session, someone mentioned that there could be ethical issues about giving a drug to people where the purpose is to prevent infection being passed on, rather than to treat the patient. Given the safety of these drugs is well-established in animals, I think it presents quite an elegant way of preventing disease spread; however, it will be important to ensure patients are fully informed. The potential that the drugs could also be used as a treatment for the disease may reduce ethical concerns.
Aleta Knowles’s talk was focussed on the differences in ‘best practice’ worm control on farms, and what farmers actually do. I think it highlighted an incredibly important issue –we assume that our discoveries (like a new drug or control method) will automatically lead to results, and fail to consult with the people implementing them to find out if it would actually work. One example of this was farmers who don’t test if they have a worm problem, because they say they do not have a worm problem. Having better diagnostic tests will do nothing to improve that situation – it can only be solved by engaging in discourse with stakeholders. Cultural, social and personal issues are also important in malaria intervention. No matter how rigorous our biochemistry is, if we fail to acknowledge the human side of issues, our research cannot achieve its full potential.
Sarah Charnaud talked about P. vivax and highlighted some key challenges raised by the differences to falciparum, namely the dormancy in the liver. The only current drug that treats liver stages is Primaquine, but the active metabolites of this drug can cause haemolysis in people with certain polymorphisms. It is therefore important to look at a more personalised method of treatment, as patient genetics influence both toxicity and efficacy. Sarah highlighted the potential of Nanopore sequencing to test people in the field for a relatively low cost. A field test identified 11% of people have one of these mutations that mean the drug is not suitable for them. There were many talks at this conference about how Nanopore is revolutionising the study of biology – this study adds another piece to that puzzle. I am keen to see the impacts that this technology will have on our understanding of Plasmodium.
Pascal Mäser’s talk was on mechanisms of drug resistance in T. brucei. It was particularly interesting because he told it as a story of how the project progressed: how each piece of data fell into the puzzle, and how that formed the basis of the next experiment. His talk also highlighted the importance of performing experiments to test hypotheses rather than making assumptions, and occasionally following your instincts. He also highlighted a few challenges specific to T. brucei that I was not previously aware of, and are interesting to compare to Plasmodium. I hope that I can incorporate elements of this study’s design and progression into my own research.
All up, the ASP Conference was a wonderful experience which emphasised how much parasitological research is happening in Australia, and how far the impacts of that research can reach.
The Australian National University
Research School of Biology
134 Linnaeus Way
Canberra - Acton ACT 2601
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Unter den Linden 6