Alyssa Barry: research impacts

28 February

Regularly, veski takes you in conversation with our innovation fellows. We talk to them about a range of topics from where they got their start in science to what happens in their lab today.

Previously we talked to Dr Alyssa Barry from the Walter and Eliza Research Institute about the beginning of her career. This time, we ask Alyssa about the research she’s undertaking and why it’s important to society.  We discover the key could be in the individual fingerprints of malaria parasites.

Your goal is to make an impact on malaria control in the future. What is your malaria research focusing on now?

We’re trying to provide a framework for targeting malaria control efforts using the latest developments in genomic technology to get to the bottom of how malaria populations are distributed, and using genetics to say ‘this population has this fingerprint, and this one has that’.

How will knowledge of the genetic structure of malaria parasites help map where malaria outbreaks come from?

By knowing what the genetic structure of the parasite population in a country is, you can then genotype a parasite from an outbreak and predict where it’s coming from. It’s very blue-sky thinking but we’ve got the technology in the lab to do this, and the scale – in terms of the amount of data we can generate - has improved overnight, and we’re teaming up with bioinformaticians who help us analyse the data.

Fifty years ago there was a malaria eradication program. Why is another program necessary now?

Even though malaria might be eliminated or controlled in a malaria-endemic country, that’s not the end of the story. You need to continue the investment and maintain the intensity of control to make sure it doesn’t come back. Fifty years ago there was a global eradication program and it partly worked but then it was abandoned and malaria came back with a vengeance in many areas. And that’s when it can become really dangerous because unless they’re being constantly infected, people can lose their natural immunity. They can get sick when previously they were immune to the disease.

Why does so much malaria research concentrate on islands such as PNG and the Solomon Islands?

PNG and Solomon Islands are our closest neighbours, and they each have significant malaria problems. We work closely with local researchers from these countries to address issues that are important to them. Both countries have recently intensified their malaria control programs and it’s important to monitor whether it is having an impact and how strategies can be improved. We are analysing malaria parasite populations to get insight into their distribution. It’s possible to eliminate malaria from islands more easily than it is to eliminate it from a larger land area, because the parasite populations are relatively isolated. If you want to use your resources carefully and don’t have as many resources as you need to cover the whole country, malaria control might be most effective on isolated populations.  In PNG, parasite populations appear to be “ecological” islands, so targeted control to specific areas may be effective. Solomon Islands is comprised of hundreds of islands.

Is there a precedent for this type of malaria control working successfully and were there any major challenges to the success?

Yes. There used to be a lot more malaria in the PNG highlands than there is now. One of the challenges is that we take blood samples from humans to look at the parasite. There’s a lot of consultation with the village leaders on the national, provincial, and local levels and we have to gain human ethics approval to conduct any study, even when it is only working on the parasite.

What’s been your most exciting finding?

My favourite paper was my first senior authorship and I’m very proud of the work that went into it. We showed that the parasite population in PNG is fragmented into genetically different sub-populations. It has formed the basis of our ideas that if parasite populations are isolated as the data suggests then targeted malaria control might work. Also, because each parasite population has its own unique fingerprint, we can analyse outbreak samples and compare to the countrywide samples to see where they come from. We’ve got the molecular tools now to address these issues. It’s just a matter of funding and time.

What is the long-term goal of the malaria control program?

We would hope that it would reduce malaria prevalence and sickness and disease and death, Our research will hopefully help make it a financially viable option to continue

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