Jacquin Niles’ lab works primarily on understanding the basic biology of the malaria parasite in order to prevent and treat the disease that kills around half a million people annually.
Through his research Niles realized that the organism, which can survive in the human bloodstream for long periods of time without producing adverse health effects, could be an adept vehicle for delivery drugs.
“We can, through engineering, convert this organism’s parasitic lifestyle into a more symbiotic relationship,” explained Niles, who hopes to develop the idea over the next three years.
To do his, Niles and his team will insert gene sequences – which code for specific molecules – into the organism’s DNA. This will allow them to determine the molecule range that the organism can create, and in turn, refine control over drug creation and delivery.
“What will be harder is thinking about ways in which we can control how and when these molecules are made,” Niles said. “Can we have the organism sense when a therapeutic is needed by the host and respond appropriately to ensure that the right amount of it is made and delivered at the right time?”
Niles’ long-term goal is to engineer the organisms to act as self-sustaining and regulating bioreactors in the bloodstream.
“Then you can imagine that rather than having to go every month for an injection of replacement enzyme, for example, that you could go for significantly longer periods without needing another medical intervention,” he added.
However, the research poses a unique set of challenges, which Niles admitted could create issues.
“An important part of this will be to cripple the parasite with respect to its ability to be naturally transmitted,” he explained. However, the researchers do know what genes need to be deleted in order for this to be achieved.
“It’s the kind of idea you have and then think about on and off, but it’s hard to sit down and write a proposal because it seems too ‘out there,’” Niles said about the research, which is being supported by an Amar G. Bose Grant – a fund for high-risk, high-reward research.
“In many ways, I felt like the Bose proposal was an outlet for the accumulation of invested thinking about this project. When the call came around, I thought, ‘Maybe this is the moment.’”