30 Jan 2012
This is part 1 of a 3 part series exploring SPUSA alumni’s work across Africa. In Part 2, Kyle describes helping to build a growing international youth climate movement at the South Africa climate talks.
Born and raised in sunny California, mosquitoes are a rare nuisance, and definitely not something to be feared. When I decided that I wanted to study the deadly disease malaria, that perspective changed dramatically. My name is Cameron, SPUSA alum from Rockefeller University and current board member. I am currently pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research. I’ve always wanted a career that allowed me to use my love of science in ways that have a major positive impact on society. I felt that advances in technology were all too often geared at “developed world” problems such as male balding or pathologies related to old age (ages that most of the underdeveloped world will never reach). These desires led me to the NIH, and it is why I switched my research trajectory toward, so called, neglected diseases. Why is the NIH working on a disease that does not impact people in the United States? Historically, the specific mosquito species capable of carrying the parasite Plasmodium Falciparum, the causative agent of malaria, lived here in the United States (as did the disease). It was the advent of the pesticide DDT that lead to the extinction of that mosquito (and malaria) in much of North America; but due to concerns over the ecological impact of DDT, its widespread use was banned. Following suit, many other nations banned the use of DDT, and because of this, under developed countries, many of which are in Africa, continue to be devastated by malaria. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has as its priority to research basic mechanisms and methods of protection for all human diseases, among these, malaria. Again, since this is a disease no longer present here in the United States, NIAID has set up research collaboration sites around the world in disease endemic countries. This allows U.S. scientists to liaise with local research staff to bolster country research capacity (through infrastructure building as well as training and resource delivery) and study the disease as it occurs in the people most afflicted.
Here is where I come in. My project is to understand why some West Africans, harboring mutations in genes for red blood cell proteins, are naturally protected from the most severe form of malaria. You may have heard of sickle-cell anemia. It is caused by a mutation that affects red blood cell morphology and has evolved to protect humans from death by Plasmodium. This mutation, along with a handful of similar ones, occurs in nearly 30% of the population in Mali, the country in which that I spend 2 months a year working. This means there is a strong selective advantage to being born with one of these mutations. These children still do become sick after receiving a bite from an infected mosquito (here was that perspective change). My job is to understand what is going on that prevents these children from progressing to coma, and ultimately death, a scenario much too common amongst their red blood cell-normal neighbors. I acquire blood samples from children as they enter our NIAID funded clinics (for free treatment) and isolate the parasites. Using a myriad of biochemical screens, I hope to understand the mechanisms at work that keep the pathogen at bay.
Working in Mali has been a life-altering endeavor. Not only have I been able to act as a mentor and collaborator to a cadre of dedicated and inspirational Malian research scientists, I’ve gained lifelong colleagues and friends. Working in isolated villages, in less than ideal research conditions, has taught me the true meaning of innovation, as well as alerting me to the much needed niche of novel small, simple and robust rapid diagnostics (a research direction I hope to continue to develop). It is clear to see that science can truly be used for the betterment of human health, but also to spur and bolster international ties. NIAID’s influences don’t stop at the clinic, and it doesn’t end when our research projects are finished. The lab spaces we have built, and the local scientists we have trained will continue to develop their country’s research capacity, and begin a positive cycle of education that will carry forward into the future. For me, now the sight of a mosquito evokes danger, but the sight of blood evokes hope. Inside the blood of the children in our research villages lies the key to factors that can protect millions from succumbing to malaria. There is also much more to be done away from the bench. Improving sanitation as well as delivery of life saving medicines is an essential but non-trivial component to the successful eradication of this disease. Mali has a long history of political stability and international comradery that makes working there easy, but many other countries in need of support do not have proper and unwavering mechanisms in place to duplicate this success. The way forward is not easy and will require policy as well as political changes. SPUSA has taught me to try to think in new ways about how advances in science and technology can impact the world around us. This is the lesson I will never forget to pack on my next adventure.