MIT Scientists Recreate Malaria in a Dish to Test Promising Drug Candidates

At the beginning, it feels like the flu: aches, pains and vomiting. But then you begin to experience severe cold and shivering, followed by fever and sweating—a cycle, known as tertian fever, that repeats itself every two days. And that’s when you know: you’ve contracted malaria.

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites and spread to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites and spread to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes

But you wouldn’t be alone. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 200 million people, mostly in Africa, contracted the disease in 2013. Of those, nearly half a million—mainly children—died. There is no cure for malaria, and the parasites that cause the disease are quickly developing resistance to treatments. This is a global public health crisis, and experts agree that in order to halt its spread, they must begin thinking outside the box.

Enter Sangeeta Bhatia, renowned biomedical engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—who, along with her team, has devised a quick and easy way to test out life-saving drug candidates that could give doctors and aid workers on the front lines fresh ammunition.

One of the key hurdles facing scientists has been the nature of the disease’s progression itself. Caused by parasites transmitted via infected mosquitos, the disease first takes hold in the liver. It is only after a few weeks that it enters the blood stream, causing symptoms. By then, the disease is so entrenched within the patient that complete eradication is extremely difficult. Even if the patient recovers, he or she will likely suffer relapses weeks, months or even years later.

The trick, therefore, is to catch the disease before it enters the blood stream. To that effect, several promising drugs have been put forth, and scientists are eager to test them out on liver tissue infected with malaria. Except that they can’t: liver tissue donors are few and far between, and lack the genetic diversity needed for large-scale testing.

Liver-stage malarial infection in iPSC-derived liver cells, eight days after infection. [Credit Ng et al.]

Liver-stage malarial infection in iPSC-derived liver cells, eight days after infection. [Credit Ng et al.]

So Bhatia and her team developed a new solution: they’d make the cells themselves. Reporting in today’s issue of Stem Cell Reports, the team describes how they transformed human skin cells into liver cells, by way of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) technology. Then, by infecting these cells with the malaria parasite, they could test a variety of drug candidates to see which worked best. As Bhatia explained:

“Our platform can be used for testing candidate drugs that act against the parasite in the early liver stages, before it causes disease in the blood and spreads back to the mosquito vector. This is especially important given the increasing occurrence of drug-resistant strains of malaria in the field.”

Bhatia has long been known for finding innovative solutions to longstanding issues in science and medicine. Just last year, she was awarded the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize in part for her invention of a paper-based urine test for prostate cancer.

In this study, the researchers bombarded malaria-infected liver cells with two drugs, called atovaguone and primaquine, each developed to treat the disease specifically at the liver stage.

The results, though preliminary, are promising: the cells responded well to both drugs, underscoring the value of this approach to testing drugs—an approach that many call “disease in a dish.”

The potential utility of “disease in a dish” studies cannot be understated, as it gives researchers the ability to screen drugs on cells from individuals of varying genetic backgrounds, and discover which drug, or drugs, works best for each group.

Shengyong Ng, a postdoctoral researcher in Bhatia’s lab, spoke of what this study could mean for disease research:

“The use of iPSC-derived liver cells to model liver-stage malaria in a dish opens the door to study the influence of host genetics on antimalarial drug efficacy, and lays the foundation for their use in antimalarial drug discovery.”

Find out more about how scientists use stem cells to model disease in a dish in our video series, Stem Cells In Your Face.

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