LivingTo eradicate malaria, we must cooperate with African scientists

To eradicate malaria, we must cooperate with African scientists

Photo: BBVA Foundation

Elena Gómez-Díaz is a biologist and focuses her research on the epigenetics of the malaria parasite. Although she has been around many times, we currently find her at the López-Neyra Institute of Parasitology and Biomedicine (CSIC) in Granada, and she carries out much of her field work in Burkina Faso. As if that were not enough, Elena is very involved in scientific dissemination: she is in charge of carrying out this communication work in her research center, she is the coordinator of Pint of Science in Granada and also participates in the Shelling Science event.

In our interview we have spoken, above all, of challenges. The challenges to overcome in the fight against malaria , a disease that affects millions of people each year. But also the challenges to save research in our country, because a lot of science is done here, and good science, but there is a lack of support. And of the challenges to break the glass ceiling and achieve the desired equality of men and women in the academic field.


Your work focuses on studying the epigenetics of the malaria parasite, can you explain a little more? What are you working on right now?

We are investigating the mechanisms that allow the parasite to change shape in different contexts. The proteins that it has on the surface are a kind of jacket that it can modify, and that allow it to be able to survive in the human environment, to evade the responses of our immune system. And the same happens also in other phases of its life cycle in the mosquito.

In fact, one of the main reasons why we have not yet come up with an effective vaccine or strategy against the malaria parasite is precisely this ability it has to continually change, because each new drug or vaccine we test causes modifications in those proteins.

This ability to change is linked to epigenetic mechanisms, which are the modifications that exist above its genetic material.

This ability it has to change its proteins would then be a kind of resistance, right? If a new drug is introduced, the parasite can cause modifications in its genome in such a way that it synthesizes different proteins …

Exactly. When our immune system generates antibodies against the parasite, it changes to express a different gene that produces a different protein that prevents binding with the antibody. In this way, it evades our defenses.

These processes are being studied in humans, but they also occur at other times in the parasite’s life cycle , and almost nothing is known about that.

That is our main line of research, and it is very important since, in the end, the mosquito is the vector that transmits the parasite and the one that has the greatest capacity to disperse it. Furthermore, sexual reproduction takes place there , which is a source of genetic variability. On the other hand, obviously we cannot experiment with humans, but we can experiment with mosquitoes, and this allows us to see very precisely how these processes are occurring.


And are these reaction mechanisms similar when the parasite is inside man?

The parasite needs different proteins in different parts of its life cycle. The environment of a mosquito has nothing to do with the human environment. What the parasite does is activate different groups of genes depending on where it is.

Our hypothesis is that the proteins will be different in the mosquito and in the human, but, nevertheless, the molecular mechanisms that lead to the expression of some genes or others will be the same. Studying the parasite in the mosquito we can see what this epigenetic regulation is, which, in theory, would be applicable to all stages of the life cycle.


With this great capacity for change, I understand that when developing a prevention or treatment strategy, it will be necessary to act at the level that you tell me. That is, above the genes.

Yes, currently the greatest efforts are in characterizing those regulatory proteins of the genome, which act as if they were a conductor indicating which genes are turned on and which ones are turned off. These conductors are called transcription factors, and each of them is capable of binding to and activating many different genes. That is to say: we are talking about a single protein controlling a lot of different genes, therefore if we want to fight effectively against malaria, we have to go for them.

On the other hand, how is climate change going to affect or is affecting the life cycles of Plasmodium and its vectors? What consequences will there be at the epidemiological level?

The challenge is at two levels: climate change and globalization. And the latter is also very important because now there is a great movement of people all over the globe.

Infectious diseases cause many, many deaths each year, and many of them are most prevalent in tropical and subtropical countries. Most of the mosquitoes that transmit some of these conditions live in areas with a very specific climate, but with rising temperatures, the distribution ranges of these species of mosquitoes increase and they end up reaching other countries, with which the risk goes global.

On the other hand there is the movement of new species to other habitats. A clear case of invasive species is the tiger mosquito. It did not exist in Spain or in the entire Mediterranean basin, but it has found very favorable conditions here and is now everywhere. And it is the vector of dengue …

Photo: Elena Gómez-Díaz

Malaria is a major global health problem. At the research level, what are the most urgent challenges to continue advancing in the fight against this disease?

The latest report from the World Health Organization said that one of the priorities is precisely to anticipate this adaptive capacity, both of the parasite and the mosquito, which adapts very quickly to both insecticides and mosquito nets. It is very important to know what these mechanisms are that allow them to adapt to be able to anticipate them.


And on a social and political level? What do you need?

The great challenge is prevention and treatment, it is not enough just to investigate. All these diseases are closely linked to the state of development of the countries with the highest prevalence. If there were good water sanitation and a greater economic capacity of the people, the problem would not be so serious. Malaria today is treatable and curable.

Much of the effort that is made goes hand in hand with the education of the local communities, it is focused on the use of mosquito nets, or on the fact that when symptoms are detected, they quickly go to the doctor to take treatment.

And, on the other hand, in addition to educating, we must also train African scientists. One of our challenges as developed countries and as researchers is to help our colleagues there. They need more of their own research, they are the ones who know the disease the most about malaria and the ones who have the most tools to involve people in the fight against the disease. Experience tells us that cooperation with African researchers is essential in order to eradicate malaria.

Photo: Elena Gómez-Díaz

Speaking of Africa, much of your research takes place in Burkina Faso, where you have been recently. How was your day-to-day work there?

To begin with, everything is much slower there. People have a looser conception of time. There things are done, as they say, “mora mora”: little by little, calmly. That breaks our schemes a lot.

On a normal day in the lab you wake up to natural light. There the work consists, on the one hand, in testing children who are going to enter school for malaria. To do this, we would get up at 4 in the morning, take the car and go to the villages. At 5 o’clock we began the tests, which consist of a small puncture on the finger to remove a drop of blood. We work in collaboration with researchers and students from Burkina Faso. In one of these days that I am telling you, we could do the blood test on about two hundred children. Also, of course, we talked to their families and everyone who was infected was given treatment.

In the microscope we looked at how many of these children were carriers of the parasite and some of us asked them to participate as volunteers, we took more blood from them and with it we infected mosquitoes in the laboratory. In this way we obtained mosquitoes that contained the parasite and we could already study their cycle at different times.

In the laboratory, in addition, we did dissections under the magnifying glass, which consist of opening the mosquito, removing the salivary glands -which is where the parasite is-, the stomach, etc. It is a very meticulous job.


Not the aburríais …

No way! And now, in addition to the work we do with the mosquito, we also put the blood of the volunteers in Petri dishes and we manage to grow the mosquitoes in vitro , so we can keep the parasites longer and also analyze them in that other part of their cycle. lifetime. And then we bring all that material to Spain and here we study which genes are active, at what moment, what function they fulfill … all that part of epigenetics that I have mentioned before.

Photo: Elena Gómez-Díaz

In addition to what is hard work, surely from Africa you have taken many experiences, good and bad moments …

Yes. I remember my second expedition very well, in 2014, as it coincided with the popular revolt that overthrew the dictator Blaise Compaoré, who had been in power for more than 25 years and had just proposed a legal reform to perpetuate himself in office.

Burkina is one of the poorest countries in Africa, but its people are very proud and fierce. A state of siege was proclaimed, the military took to the streets and the country was on the brink of a civil war. We were locked up at home for a couple of weeks, without internet, unable to go out … we didn’t know where that led, there were pickets in the streets … Anyway, it was a situation of great uncertainty.

And I had my experiments underway, so I was faced with a dilemma: either I would throw away all my months of work, or try to get to the laboratory. One of my colleagues accompanied me. We lived through some moments of great tension but I managed to save the experiment. In the end I was happy to have been there, for them it was a battle won, they regained control of the country and a new stage began, everyone was happy. Living that historical moment in a country that I love very much was very beautiful.

Photo: BBVA Foundation

We are now coming to Spain. What would you say about the situation of science in our country?

The other day they asked me why I do disclosure. We are paid to do science, but also because that science has an impact on society. People have to know what we do, why we do it and how important this is. You have to communicate that importance, if people value science, it will be better financed, because the biggest problem here is that there is no investment in research.

In Spain, very good science is done and there are excellent professionals, but everything can be ruined if there is no funding. A country cannot be innovative or pioneering if it does not have a powerful scientific and technological fabric. That is something in which Spain has to change the short-term chip, the one that thinks that if something does not give immediate wealth it is not interesting.

I know many very valid colleagues who are being expelled by the system because there is not enough funding. We must change this mentality because we are going to take on the future of our country. In the end, without science there is no future and that is not something that I say. The countries that have emerged the best from the crisis are those that are investing in science and technology.


Lately we have been talking a lot about the importance of promoting scientific vocations among women. Did you have any female references when choosing your professional path?

My supervisor in the post-doctorate was a very strong and fierce woman, vindictive, who was not satisfied with what they gave her. She was my inspiration, but also my family: my mother has always been very fighter and nonconformist and that’s where I think my character also comes from.

The issue of inspiring vocations is fundamental, but it is also important to ask where we are taking those women we are inspiring to be scientists. I think that for it to work, this must also go hand in hand with a structural reform of our scientific system, because as long as there is no more work-life balance in our institutes and an environment in which harassment, discrimination and violence against women, it does not make much sense to inspire new vocations.

We have to encourage any person, man or woman, to do what they are passionate about, and also build an environment where there is room for everyone, that is equal and free of violence for women.


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