Your CV tells me you now hold positions at Tulane and Johns Hopkins. How do you split your time between the two institutions?
I moved here [to Tulane] in 2010, so I’m full time at Tulane, but I also have an adjunct appointment at Johns Hopkins. My major commitment is to Tulane.
Why study malaria? What first drew you to the field?
I don’t have any personal anecdotes to tell, it was more driven by the need and the public health impact the disease has. The disease caused by the malaria parasite has been with humanity forever and continues to cause serious problems. Nearly 50% of the world population lives in areas where malaria causes public health problems. There are 300 million clinical infections every year. Among those, there are about 1 million deaths due directly to malaria infection.
You and your colleagues have worked to develop vaccines that block the transmission of malaria. How do these vaccines work? At what stage of development are they?
The malaria parasite life cycle inside the mosquito is critical for the transmission process. The way it works is we will immunize populations with the vaccine, and those vaccine induced immune responses—antibodies—will be picked up by the mosquito during normal feeding. When mosquitoes feed on blood they will pick up the antibodies. The antibodies will work inside the mosquito midgut and block parasite development, hopefully, completely. In the lab and in models we can achieve almost 100% blocking of parasite development in mosquitoes.
We have gone on to produce vaccines for the human malaria parasite and used them in vitro. This has shown the vaccines block 95% or more of the malaria parasite’s transmission capabilities.
One of the questions I get asked is, “Who cares? What you’re doing is blocking development inside the mosquito.” But it doesn’t matter where you target the parasites—whether it’s in people or mosquitoes—as long as you can eliminate the pathogen, you can get rid of malaria.
You’ve also authored some publications on the influence of helminth infections on malaria infections. What are helminths and how do these infections interact?
Helminths are also parasites. They’re more complex in the sense that they are multicellular. More than 60% of the world population is infected with helminth parasites. Some are harmless, but some cause tremendous debilitating health effects.
Because of these numbers, coinfections with helminths and malaria are more common than one can imagine.
We became interested in understanding whether there are any sort of interactions between helminthes and malaria. We are trying to make this transmission-blocking vaccine, but is it going to be effective if there are infections with a helminth parasite?
We’re looking at coinfections in Zimbabwe and finding interactions between helminths and malaria which influence the effectiveness of the malaria vaccine constructs that we are building. This has emphasized the need for more vigorous investigation.
Where do you see malaria research in 10 years?
It depends. We have seen a tremendous drop in science funding. Assuming the funding situation is going to improve, I hope to see some progress in the vaccine we are trying to develop. My goal is to see that the transmission-blocking vaccine at the stage of being tested and deployed in malaria endemic areas.
However, this can only happen if the science funding situation improves. Otherwise we will see a very unfortunate decline in the standard of science that we do in the United States. The younger generation is getting discouraged because of lack of funding. Science funding, as well as support for teachers, researchers, and engineers, has to remain at the highest level in order to maintain science excellence.
If you had to change careers today and you could do anything, what would you do?
Oh my goodness. I truly love science. I feel passionately about the public health problem of malaria. But if I had to change my area I would try to get involved in science policy, in an advisory or leadership role. I would try to continue support for science teaching, etc.
The other side of my life is music. I truly love music, especially Indian classical music. Growing up as a child, I didn’t have the chance to pursue my interest. But 10-15 years ago I started learning music in Baltimore. So, maybe I would become a musician.
What’s your favorite science book?
There are so many it would be an injustice to name just one. Recently I read Global Disease Eradication: the Race for the Last Child from ASM press. A really fascinating book that takes you back to what it takes to eradicate a disease.
A few years back I read Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky. Another fascinating book is The Malaria Capers: More Tales of Parasites and People. I am parasite-centric.
What is something about you that most people don’t know?
Except for my family, most people don’t know I truly love Indian music. It’s a very different type of music.
Another thing is that I’m an adventurous person. I went on a microlight flight over Victoria Falls. I love travel, but it’s got to be in a sort of natural context. I don’t like a jungle of steel and concrete, I like nature.