Sarchi Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control to boost South Africa’s only comprehensive malaria research effort

Prof Lyn-Marie Birkholtz

“Malaria is a very complex disease. Trying to stop it is like trying to hit thousands of tennis balls with a teaspoon.” Using this analogy, Lyn-Marie Birkholtz, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and a member of the Centre for Sustainable Malaria Control at the University of Pretoria (UPCSMC) reiterates the importance of on-going, trans-disciplinary research in an effort to eliminate the disease that remains one of Africa’s greatest killers.

Prof Birkholtz, a leader in the discipline of antimalarial target discovery, will be heading the South African Research Chair (SARChl Chair) in Sustainable Malaria Control with a budget of R1.5 million per year, funded by the DST through the NRF.

The chair will be officially launched on 24 April 2014, on the eve of World Malaria Day, and will enhance UP’s recognised and unique integrated focus on malaria parasite biology, functional genomics, drug discovery efforts, innovative mosquito control strategies as well as public health and community engagement. As holder of the chair, Prof Birkholtz will use her expertise on the parasite to investigate sustainable mechanisms to control not only the parasite itself, but also its mosquito vector.

“When it comes to the Big Five of most dangerous organisms on our planet, three are mosquitoes. What’s more, these three species – Anopheles gambiae, Anopheles arabiensis, and Anopheles funestus – are the most efficient carriers of the fourth of the Big Five killers: the malaria parasite itself,” explains Prof Leo Braack, a specialist in mosquito ecology. His newly established Research Initiative in Integrated Vector Management (IVM) will also be launched on 24 April at UP.

“The parasite is a microscopically small blood borne parasite that annually kills more than 500 000 people in Africa,” he explains.

According to Prof Braack, the battle to control malaria is largely based on two strategies: control the mosquitoes and control the parasite.

“There is another strategy quietly being pursued that holds great hope, the development of an effective vaccine, but that remains an elusive trophy – tantalizingly close but never quite reached,” he says.

The greatest effort in malaria control goes towards the control of mosquitoes, mostly through insecticide-treated bed nets (ITN’s) or long lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs) as well as spraying the inside walls of homes with insecticides (indoor residual spraying or IRS).

“Although major successes have been achieved over the past decade in reducing the number of malaria cases in Africa by way of mainly mosquito control, challenges are emerging in the form of new genetic strains of mosquitoes that are resistant to traditional insecticides being used, and even adaptive shifts in the feeding behaviour of at least one of the main malaria mosquitoes,” Prof Braack says.

“So, if globally the two main strategies for malaria control depend on mosquito control and parasite control (and the first is the most effective), then we better start thinking about new tools to supplement existing strategies. This is exactly what the UPCSMC is working towards.”

About malaria

Malaria is a complex parasitic disease confined mostly to tropical areas and transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes. There are an estimated 250 million clinical cases of malaria yearly, which cause more than half a million deaths, mostly of children under 5 years of age and mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria-endemic countries are faced with the high cost of prevention and treatment of the disease.

About the Centre for Sustainable Malaria Control at the University of Pretoria

The vision of the UPCSMC is to make a substantial contribution towards the creation of a malaria-free Africa.

The Centre is the only one of its kind due its unique approach to malaria by addressing all aspects of malaria, including the parasite, the mosquito carrier, and the human host, and doing so in integrated, trans-disciplinary strategies. Collaborative teams in different departments, faculties and even institutions form clusters to bring together skills and resources from different sources to address all aspects of the disease, including:

Health Aspects

Malaria case management is an important focus within this cluster. Sustainable but safe methods to control malaria must be developed while at the same time focusing on the health of the public and the environment. Research projects on safe alternatives for DDT, as well as educational projects like the new Sibo book form part of this cluster.

Parasite Control

This research group focuses on anything related to the malaria parasite from the parasite biology and surveillance (epidemiology) to the transmission blocking strategies and anti-malarial discovery and development as well as other methods to prevent the transfer of the disease-causing parasite. Another important focus within this group is the study of related malaria-like infections where the differences and similarities between the malaria parasite and similar disease-causing parasites (eg babesiosis in dogs) can be used to better understand this devastating disease in humans. The SARChI Chair falls under this cluster.

Vector Control

This research group focuses on anything related to the mosquito (vector) and the variety of current and new methods to prevent them from transmitting the parasite and therefore the disease. Here physical methods of control are looked at along with monitoring and evaluation. Important factors such as biting behaviour, the behaviour of mosquitoes in their natural habitat as well as research on what attracts or repels them is done, bionomics and semiochemistry of the vectors are studied in order to better understand the vector’s preferences and methods when searching for targets to feed on. This aids to find better methods to control the vector from reaching or biting their targets.

Some of the research currently being done in the UPCSMC includes the following:

    • The use of insecticide-impregnated wall linings
    • Cross-border malaria surveillance between South Africa and its neighbours, in close collaboration with the National Department of Health.
    • Discovering and using various plant extracts to repel malaria-transmitting mosquitoes.
    • A project to isolate and use key molecules as attractants in inexpensive mosquito traps to reduce populations in rural villages.
    • Vector Control policy development and support in East Africa.
    • The biting behaviour of the main malaria vector mosquitoes: a research collaboration between UP, the Wits Malaria Research Institute and Uganda.
    • The use of an innovative low-cost cell-phone technology, mSpray, by spray-workers to record IRS applications of pesticides in homesteads for malaria control is being tested.
    • A project looking at a new series of chemical derivatives of naturally occurring anticancer compounds that showed potent activity against malaria parasites at very low concentrations.
    • Prof Birkholtz, in collaboration with scientists from Wits and the CSIR, constitute the Gauteng Malaria Transmission Blocking Platform. The platform focuses particularly on the identification, validation and characterisation of chemical entities with potential transmission blocking ability. The effect of potential antimalarial drugs on the complete life cycle of the P. falciparum.
    • The use of a book (Sibo fights malaria) as a tool to educate young children about malaria, its symptoms and how to avoid getting it. This could potentially alter attitudes towards the disease (in children and hopefully their parents) and lead to lifestyle patterns that could help lessen the burden of malaria in endemic areas

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Story by: Department of University Relations, University of Pretoria