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How Can Engineers Contribute to the Fight Against Malaria?

05/11/2010 6:00 PM Museum
Subra Suresh, ScD '81, Dean, MIT School of Engineering; ; Monica Diez"Silva, Post"doctoral fellow, DMSE; David Quinn, Graduate student, Mechanical Engineering

Description: Malaria has afflicted mankind from time immemorial, confounding many attempts at its eradication. Hundreds of millions now contract the disease annually, and between one and three million -- primarily children -- die from malaria each year. But thanks to an alliance with engineering, medical science has some powerful, new weapons in its arsenal that may ultimately prevail over malaria.

From the labs of MIT Dean of Engineering Subra Suresh comes a fresh approach to the disease. The parasitic microbe that causes malaria affects the ability of red blood cells to contract, or deform, as they move through the body's thousands of blood vessels, delivering oxygen and removing CO2. Several years ago, Suresh had the insight that the infection could be viewed as "an engineering problem." With the recent deciphering of the malaria parasite genome, and new methods for measuring forces on individual molecules and cells, says Suresh, "We have some hope of asking a question that we did not have the hope of answering 10 years ago." Researchers can now minutely and systematically track how biochemical and environmental triggers lead to devastating changes in red blood cell deformability in malaria.

Suresh has assembled an international group of researchers to investigate different pieces of this complex disease, which involves mosquitoes and humans, and multiple phases of infection. From the Institut Pasteur Suresh recruited microbiologist Monica Diez"Silva, who is exploring how Plasmodium falciparum (the parasite responsible for the most severe form of malaria) produces mechanical changes inside infected red blood cells. This microorganism churns out thousands of merozoites that enter the cells, making them stick to each other and to the walls of blood vessels. They become so rigid that they can't squeeze easily through blood vessels, compromising circulation. Diez"Silva is especially concerned with infected cells that invade the brain.

Another Suresh group member, mechanical engineer David Quinn, developed a home"made optic system to trap and stretch red blood cells. He learned that in the late stages of malaria infection, the membranes of these cells increase in stiffness by a factor of 50. He is also using microfluidics to model the flow of infected and uninfected red blood cells -- an "engineered obstacle course" -- which may some day yield a portable diagnostic tool.

Suresh hopes his team's work will lead to a host of analytic and therapeutic aids for malaria. They have already made a great leap with the discovery of a Plasmodium falciparum gene that codes for a protein reducing the deformability of red blood cells. This same protein, they learned, also has greater impact when body temperature rises _ typical of high fever episodes in malaria. With research partners in Singapore, the Suresh group is working on a humanized mouse model in which different genes of the Plasmodium parasite are removed to see how they affect the disease. Some day, it might be possible to kill key parasite proteins in mosquitoes by widespread spraying, effectively defanging the disease. But Suresh warns, "We are very far away from therapeutic success. Mosquitoes adapt faster than we can study malaria."

About the Speaker(s): Subra Suresh joined the MIT faculty from Brown University in 1993. He has served as the head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, and became Dean of the School of Engineering in 2007. His current research focuses on the mechanical responses of single biological cells and molecules and their implications for human health and diseases. Suresh has published more than 210 articles in journals, and is co"inventor of 14 U.S. and international patents.

Suresh is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Indian National Academy of Engineering. His honors include the Gordon Moore Distinguished Scholar award from CalTech, the Brahm Prakash Visiting Professorship from the Indian Institute of Science, selection by the Institute for Scientific Information as one of the most highly cited researchers in Materials Science, the Clark B. Millikan Visiting Professorship at CalTech, the TFR Swedish National Chair in Engineering from the Royal Instiute of Technology, Stockholm and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

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