April 25 brings the global malaria community together to celebrate World Malaria Day. Despite advances in lowering the global burden of malaria over the last two decades, progress in the fight against the disease has stalled in recent years, particularly in high-burden countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2021, there were an estimated 247 million malaria cases worldwide, with the African region alone accounting for 95% of these.
Today, funding shortfalls, emerging biological threats, and low coverage of existing tools are brewing a perfect storm for malaria. Challenges such as those of growing insecticide and drug resistance threaten the effectiveness of current tools. An unprecedented shortfall of more than 50% in global malaria funding is also holding countries back from maintaining life-saving malaria programmes at current levels and reaching those at risk from malaria.
This year’s World Malaria Day will be celebrated under the theme “Time to Deliver Zero Malaria: Invest, Innovate, Implement”. The 2023 theme highlights the urgent need for action to deliver zero malaria. The global malaria community must come together and call on world leaders to invest in efforts to defeat the disease and bridge critical funding gaps, to implement the tools and strategies available, and to innovate to deliver new tools and approaches that can reach those who need them the most.
This World Malaria Day, we are joining the call to innovate to deliver zero malaria by highlighting the profiles of 7 researchers who are working on innovative approaches to fight the disease.
Amelie Wamba Ndongmo Regine, Pan-African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA)
“The emergence of challenges such as that of growing insecticide resistance or the threat posed by the recent spread of the malaria vector Anopheles stephensi on the African continent, mean that new tools are needed more than ever to bring the fight against malaria back on track.”
Growing up in Cameroon, I personally witnessed the suffering malaria can cause and the huge strain this disease puts on people’s financial status and their ability to work or attend school. This sent me on a quest to understand the reason why malaria is still a significant challenge in Africa. My PhD research focused on exploring the underlying mechanisms and drivers of insecticide resistance in the Anopheles funestus mosquito – a major vector of malaria in Central Africa, to develop knowledge which could inform the implementation of more effective intervention and management strategies for vector control.
In my current role as the Coordinator of the Gene Drive Project at PAMCA, I work on educating and building capacity around the potential use of gene drive technologies, an innovative tool which could one day complement existing interventions to fight malaria.
Angella Nakamaanya, Target Malaria, Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI)
“Malaria is becoming more resistant to current control methods and is resurging in many countries. This is extremely worrying, and we must find new and additional ways to tackle this disease and help create a malaria-free world.”
As a mother of two living in Uganda, I am well aware of the challenges and sorrow that malaria can bring. My children have frequently experienced persistent malaria that is resistant to the available treatments. Malaria has always been a present threat in our society, and it often results in financial stress for families and leads to children missing school.
The resistance of malaria parasites to current antimalarial drugs triggered my desire to further understand the biology and behavior of Anopheles mosquitoes which are the vectors for malaria. By working with Target Malaria as an Insectary Assistant, I discovered that malaria can be managed by tackling its root cause: the Anopheles mosquito. At the insectary, we study these mosquitoes’ behavior and collect data to inform the development of innovative genetic technologies to reduce malaria transmission. These technologies could be used as a complementary tool to the existing interventions currently deployed in Uganda and other malaria endemic countries.
Andrea (Andie) Smidler, The Akbari Lab, University of California San Diego (UCSD)
“With malaria case reduction having plateaued in recent years, and donor fatigue exacerbating the crisis, it is critical that we ensure not to lose the momentum we have fought so hard to achieve.”
I always dreamed of genetically engineering my own pet dragon to right the world’s wrongs. After my mother had a stroke, I vowed to use this “dragon” to prevent other children from having to stand and watch over their mother’s sick bed. When I discovered mosquito genetic engineering, I knew I had found my Smaug. Since then, my life’s work has been dedicated to developing innovative genetic tools to control the African malaria mosquito, Anopheles gambiae. My dissertation research focused on developing CRISPR-based vector control tools for Anopheles gambiae, a line of research I am continuing at the University of California San Diego’s Akbari Lab, as a Postdoctoral Researcher.
Danspaid Mabuka Maanda (Paul), University of California Malaria Initiative (UCMI)
“We need to develop and implement cost-effective and sustainable innovations that could not only support existing methods to fight malaria, but also help accelerate the fight towards zero parasite transmission.”
In 1994, I lost my sister to malaria. It was at this moment that I realized how deadly this disease can be. Her death pushed me to join medical school, where I became interested in the field of entomology and particularly in malaria mosquito vectors. Throughout the years, my research has been focused on studying the biology and ecology of malaria mosquitoes to enable the development and implementation of more effective malaria elimination strategies.
I now work as an Insectary Manager and Research Associate at UCMI, a not-for-profit research collaborative who aims to contribute to the elimination of malaria by developing genetically modified mosquitoes that are unable to transmit the malaria parasite. My work here involves designing and implementing experiments to understand mosquito behaviour, genetics and ecology, as well as participating in field research at UCMI’s sites in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Etienne Bilgo, Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé (IRSS) and Centre Muraz
“Meeting the set goals towards the control and elimination of malaria will require developing innovative tools and strategies that are more accessible and affordable and can help reduce health disparities and promote health equity.”
The scars on my cheeks, known as “kononi” in my native language Dioula, were once believed to protect children from a bird that would take their souls during rainy seasons. When I noticed the reappearance of these “protective scars” in my community, I realized that we are still far from living in a malaria-free world.
This led me to become a medical entomologist, dedicated to fighting malaria by finding novel solutions that can complement existing tools. My work as a research fellow at the Joint Parasitology and Medical Entomology laboratory of the IRSS and Centre Muraz, in Burkina Faso, is focused on exploring novel and emerging mosquito control biotechnologies. We are currently investigating the potential of micro-organisms such as Metarhizium sp., Chromobacterium sp., Wolbachia, Microsporidia MB, Serratia to be used as tools that could either help eliminate the malaria vector or block the development of malaria parasites within mosquitoes.
Roger Sanou, Target Malaria, Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé (IRSS)
“It’s time to innovate and focus our scientific research to deliver zero malaria to the world, for a safe and better life without malaria.”
Malaria is a major public health issue in Burkina Faso, where I live and work. Beyond the huge health burden it creates, malaria imposes a heavy economic burden on individuals, families and the entire country. To address this issue, I decided to contribute to the scientific research being conducted to find new tools that could help eliminate the disease in my country, in Africa and in the world at large.
I am currently working as an entomologist and insectary operating manager for Target Malaria at the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé (IRSS) / Centre Muraz, where I study malaria mosquitoes and oversee the operations of the insectary. Our research is focused on the development of genetically modified mosquitoes that could one day be used as an additional tool to reduce malaria transmission and help address growing issues of resistance to current malaria-control tools.
Tony Nolan, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM)
“It is important that we continue to research and develop new tools to control the malaria vector that can help us stay one step ahead of the ever-evolving malaria mosquito and parasite.”
I have always been interested in the dynamics of interaction between the malaria parasite and its mosquito vector, and the arms race between the mosquito and human efforts to control it. This led me to a career focused on understanding the elements of the mosquito’s biology that could be used as an “Achilles’ heel” to target and interrupt malaria transmission.
My research work has been focused on the malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae and on the field of genetic biocontrol, in particular gene drive technologies. Whilst working at Imperial College London, I took part in some of the first attempts to develop a gene drive in Anopheles mosquitoes and also led the team that developed the first-ever gene drive technology designed to suppress a mosquito population.
As a Research Group Leader at the LSTM, I currently head a research team working to refine some of the tools necessary to build effective gene drive technologies for mosquito control and better understand the genetic and molecular basis of insecticide resistance in malaria mosquitoes. As they are self-sustaining, gene drive technologies could some day be used to control malaria in hard-to-reach areas, where access to health infrastructure is limited and where it may be difficult to implement other approaches effectively.