Issue 18
Monday, 23 October 2017
Charles Darwin University
Newly graduated Dr Jessica Loughland
Newly graduated Dr Jessica Loughland

Malaria paralyses immune cells

By Patrick Nelson

The quest to develop a better vaccine for malaria is a complicated business, but that hasn’t deterred Dr Jessica Loughland of the Menzies School of Health Research, who received a PhD from Charles Darwin University this month.

For the past four years Dr Loughland has paid close attention to the impact the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum has on particular cell types within the human immune system.

“There is a limited understanding of the effect this micro-organism has on the four blood dendritic cell subsets, which fulfil a variety of roles in the fight against malarial infection, and are essential for developing immunity,” Dr Loughland said.

“My experiments showed that Plasmodium affects different subsets in different ways, but in simple terms we found that they disrupted the ability of some dendritic cell subsets to do their job, which ultimately allows the parasite to thrive during the blood-stage of infection.

“They are results that give rise to the need for further clinical trials, particularly in relation to the dendritic cell subset known as CD16+ mDC, which became more active during peak infection.”

Dr Loughland said that malaria remained a major global health problem with the World Health Organisation reporting 214 million cases and 438,000 deaths in 2015.

“Most of these deaths were the result of Plasmodium falciparum infections, in which African children under five years of age comprised the bulk.

“Malaria has evaded the attempts of dedicated researchers despite advancements in biotechnology including molecular biology, genetics, immunology and vaccinology.”

While several anti-malarial drugs are under development, the low efficacy RTS-S/AS01 is the only vaccine approved by the World Health Organisation.

“It’s a challenging field of enquiry, but my study and other research in the Global and Tropical Health Division at the Menzies School of Health Research have increased the understanding of the human immune response to Plasmodium infection,” Dr Loughland said.