May 24, 2018
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USM team hopes to genetically modify viruses to battle malaria parasites

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — A University of Southern Maine team believes it may be on the cusp of a better anti-malaria vaccine, by genetically modifying viruses to battle the malaria parasites.

Dr. Monroe Duboise, an associate professor of molecular biology and microbiology, and doctoral student Naun Lobo are leading a team of mostly graduate students who are engaged in pioneering research with the microscopic bacteriophages — viruses which specifically infect bacteria. The scientists hope to add genome sequences to the genetic code already present in the bacteriophages to equip them with the biological weaponry needed to fight malaria parasites.

Current malaria antidotes, said Duboise, are complicated to produce and many are only effective against the parasite during the initial phases of infection. But if their genetic modifications to the bacteriophages are successful, the viruses could be armed with a variety of adaptations, allowing them to combat whatever growth phase of the parasites they encounter in the proverbial battlefield of the human body. The team hopes to create a microscopic Swiss Army knife, of sorts.

Also, he said, because bacteriophages are genetically simple, an anti-malaria vaccine based on bacteriophages would be cheaper and easier to produce than any antidotes currently circulated. Those qualities will help scientists keep pace with the rapid adaptation ability of malaria parasites, which grow resistant to antidotes and force the introduction of new vaccines every few years, Duboise said.

“Malaria has been studied for a long time, and treatments are still not very effective,” said Lobo on Friday at the USM team’s laboratory.

Duboise said the genetic modification work the team is aiming to develop could be replicated on small scales at microbiology labs anywhere in the world. As a result, the bacteriophage vaccine could be produced in limited batches, where it’s needed and when it’s needed, overcoming the warehousing and refrigeration challenges facing antidotes developed and mass produced by pharmaceutical companies.

“The beauty of this is the simplicity of it,” Lobo said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced this week that Duboise’s team was a grant winner in its Grand Challenges Explorations program, which allocates initial prizes of $100,000 each for project proposals and as much as $1 million in follow-up funding for additional work down the road.

Because bacteriophages rely on host bacteria to survive, the USM team is using bacteriophages reliant on bacteria found only in the extreme environment of remote alkaline lakes in Kenya. The bacteria cannot survive long in the human body, so the related bacteriophages will not be able to stay and spread inside humans beyond a temporary period, Lobo said. That should help prevent the modified bacteriophages themselves from becoming a problem to humans, he said.

Duboise said the Gates Foundation grant money covers about 18 months of research, and if the team’s method of altering bacteriophages to combat malaria is successful, he said the process can be used to fight other infectious diseases as well.

“We want to produce good vaccine prototypes during that [18 months],” Duboise said, “then move on to further testing. Malaria is an important target, but this model of vaccine development could be used for many other things.”

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