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London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Malaria Centre

Blog: EMBL BioMalParXIII Conference


29 May 2017
A team from the Malaria Centre travelled to Heidelberg in Germany to attend the EMBL BioMalParXIII “Biology and Pathology of the Malaria Parasite” conference during the last week of May 2017. They selected some highlights of the conference.

Sam Wassmer


Day 1 started with a Vector Biology session, and one notable talk was given by Noushin Emami from Stockholm University. She explained the effect of volatiles on the feeding behaviour of Anopheles gambiae and nicely showed that blood containing a parasite-released isoprenoid precursor called HMBPP, is more attractive to the vector than blood devoid of HMBPP. Indeed, HMBPP While the presence of HMBPP had no influence on fitness or fertility of A. gambiae, it had a direct positive effect on the number of oocysts found in the midgut. This suggests that HMBPP may be used by the parasite to improve its transmission odds.


The Immunobiology session was kicked off by an excellent keynote lecture from Peter Crompton on humoral immunity to malaria, and Joshua Tan from the Institute of Research in Biomedicine showed how him and his colleagues used plasma samples from patients enrolled in the Sanaria vaccine trial in Tanzania to purify monoclonal antibodies from protected individuals. These antibodies all recognised CSP and had potent sporozoite invasion blocking activity in an in vivo murine model of infection. The best blockers were selected for epitope mapping and revealed a promising new target epitope for malaria vaccine.


A poster session was then held in what is possibly the coolest (if a tad nerdy) setting imaginable, i.e., on a double helix structure within the EMBL Advanced Training Centre. Later, attendees gathered in the main auditorium to honour the career of Kevin Marsh, who was felicitated by both Faith Osier and Philip Bejon on his much-deserved EMBL Lifetime Achievement Award. Kevin gave an overview of the global decrease of malaria incidence and mortality worldwide following the deployment of ACT and long-lasting impregnated nets; he also warned of the new challenges that lie ahead, including the well-established artemisinin resistance in the Greater Mekong Subregion, the insecticide resistance worldwide, and the emergence of new parasite species such as P. knowlesi in Malaysia.


Day 2 saw a flurry of researchers from or affiliated with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute during the first session, which focused on Big Data. The keynote lecture was delivered by Tapio Lonnberg, who described how, using a combination of single cell RNA Seq and computational biology, his team dissected the CD4+ T cell response during blood-stage P. chabaudi infection in mice. They recreated cell differentiation trajectories during the emergence of Th1 and Tfh populations, and showed that cell fate is not predetermined. Interestingly, they found that monocytes “coach” precursor T cells towards a Th1, and not a Tfh fate.


During the Host-Parasite Interaction session, Thomas Lavstsen and Janet Storm presented concurring data on P. falciparum var gene expression in clinical isolates from patients with severe and mild malaria. Both studies confirmed the involvement of EPCR-binding CIDR1 domain in the development of severe malaria. Mariana de Niz’ work on in vivo dynamics of mature gametocyte crossing of the bone marrow vascular barrier was also noteworthy. She detailed her sequential blocking experiments to identify the role of P-selectin in parasite arrest, and of PECAM/VE-cadherin in extravasation from the blood compartment to the haematopoietic environment of the bone marrow.


The first Molecular and Cellular Biology session followed, and Christine Lehmann from the Crick Institute showed that dipeptidyl aminopeptidase 3 (PfDPAP3) plays a pivotal role in erythrocyte invasion by P. falciparum. Indeed, conditional knock-out lines present severe in vitro growth defect due to inefficient attachment of merozoites to erythrocytes. Markus Ganter from Heidelberg Medical School then went on to explain how cdc2-related protein kinase 4 (PfCRK4) is critical for the parasite DNA replication during schizogony, and therefore represents a promising new therapeutic target to block transmission.


The PI band Pumphandle Blues took the stage following a very successful second poster session, with Philip Bejon filling in for Colin Sutherland. Revellers were seen dancing and drinking until late in the night…


… and most retuned, dazed and confused, for the Pathology and Epidemiology session that kicked off Day 3. After two complementary presentations on endothelial impairement both in brain and retinal microvasculature during cerebral malaria, James McCarthy and Faith Osier presented results from controlled human malaria infections with P. malariae in Australia, and P. falciparum in Kenya, respectively. While James focused his talk on the development of tools to facilitate P. malariae elimination, Faith presented preliminary data from her study in semi-immune adults, which aims to better understand the variation in humoral response to P. falciparum infection.


The second Molecular and Cellular Biology included a wide range of topics, approaches and parasites types. Lyn-Marie Birkholtz from the University of Pretoria gave an overview of the results from her team, showing that a set of histone post-translational modifications display a unique and conserved abundance profile during gametocytogenesis, suggesting a pattern associated with sexual stages of P. falciparum parasites. Shaijla Singh from Jawaharlal Nehru University was the recipient of the MMV sponsor award, and presented stunning images to support the involvement of P. falciparum perforin-like protein 2 (PfPLP2) during the invasion of erythrocytes. Indeed, upon contact with membrane of uninfected erythrocytes, PfPLP2 induces the formation of calcium-permissive pores that facilitate the merozoite entry, suggesting a potential drug target for blood stages.


The conference was concluded by an interactive panel discussion on the different career options for scientists, which included live polling form the audience using the EMBL conference application.