iMed Research Challenge – Interview with Miguel Prudêncio

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For many centuries, malaria has been a serious menace that baffles the scientific community. Today, we are closer to the development of a vaccine than we have ever been before, but dealing with the Plasmodium genus is still a challenge.

One of the winners of the iMed Research Challenge will have the opportunity to see malaria in a different view. At the Prudêncio Lab, under the tutelage of Professor Miguel Prudêncio, the student will be able to see his research on the Plasmodium liver stages, which was designed to discover specific steps within the infection that will hopefully guide new antimalarial treatments. If you have felt the “sting” of the malaria fascination, don’t miss this opportunity!

Professor Miguel Prudêncio graduated in Biochemistry by the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon in 1993 and started his research career 18 years ago, when he became a PhD student in the field of metalloprotein characterisation. He completed his PhD on Biochemistry by the University of East Anglia in 2000, followed by a Post-Doc on protein-protein interactions at the University of Leiden, partly funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship. He became a Post-Doc in Maria Mota’s research group, initially at Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência and later at Instituto de Medicina Molecular (IMM). In 2008 he was hired under FCT’s Ciência 2007 Programme and became a Staff Scientist of the IMM’s Malaria Unit. In July 2013, Professor Prudêncio became a fully independent Group Leader at IMM, heading the Prudêncio Lab. He has earned several scientific awards, including the CESPU Award, the Mello Award for Health Sciences, and the BES Innovation Award, and he is the creator of four independent patents. In addition, he is also the author of over 50 scientific articles in international peer-reviewed journals, with an accumulated impact factor of 340.

(in Knocking on Science’s Door, FRONTAL Special Edition of iMed Conference® 6.0)

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FRONTAL: What made you think that Plasmodium berghei could be used to develop a vaccine against Malaria?

Miguel Prudêncio (MP): That’s a funny question because it goes back to when I started working on malaria. In the lab, we work as a model with Plasmodium berghei. That’s the tool we use as model for all the research that we do in the lab and we work with mosquitoes infected with Plasmodium berghei and it sometimes happens that we get beaten by a Plasmodium berghei infected mosquito. Many years ago, when I started working in this field, I asked myself the question “if we don’t get sick by being stunned by these mosquitoes infected with Plasmodium berghei but still, there is a high chance that the parasite will reach the liver cells, maybe these parasites will elicit an immune response that we could use. Then discussing this matter with colleagues and then maturating this ideia, the idea of genetically modifying the Plasmodium berghei parasite to make it elicit more specific immune responses came up. This is how it started. For a while it was just an idea because we didn’t have the funds or the means to test the idea until the Gates Foundation came along. We proposed the idea and then we were able to test it. But for years it was just an idea that we didn’t know if it would pursue.

F: Do you think that Plasmodium falciparum could develop defence strategies like a mutation against this vaccine that you are developing? What could you do to prevent that?

MP: The vaccine is based on the use the rodent malaria parasite Plasmodium berghei so mutations of Plasmodium falciparum are not our main concern. We don’t think that Plasmodium falciparum mutations would trigger protection against/from these vaccines. Of course our main concern is whether the immune response that we can get from using this strategy is strong enough to completely block an infection from Plasmodium falciparum, because we rely on the cross species protection between the P. berghei and the P. falciparum parasite. And then, on top of that we have this antigen that we engineered on the P. berghei parasite but the question is “Is this enough?”. This is our main concern.

F: At what age should people be vaccinated?

MP: The problem of Malaria is that it affects mostly children. 85% of the deaths occurring from Malaria are in children under 5 years old. The vaccine against Malaria should target very young children. A vaccine like this one, if it ever becomes a reality, has at the moment one problem that has to do with the delivery. It has been shown that for this kind of vaccine, pre-erythrocytic vaccines to be effective, for now, the only way it works in people is by intravenous injection. This is a limitation in which people are working on, so we can overcome it. It is a limitation, especially if you think of vaccinating very young children. But, in any case, the ideal vaccine against Malaria should be provided to children very soon after birth.

F: Will the vaccine be available for every country or should it start in endemic countries?

MP: In principle Malaria has a very well defined endemic region and this is where the population needs the vaccine the most. Also, the Gates Foundation main concern is that we are able to provide solutions in terms of vaccination to the people in these regions. But in any case, a vaccine against Malaria will also be very important and useful for people who travel to these regions: tourists, business people, military personnel… In any case, this vaccine, or any vaccine against Malaria will not be deployed simultaneously all over the World. It will always be a stepwise process and probably the way something like this should proceed is to start with specific regions and then gradually expand to other places.


Interviewer: Rute Marques

Redactor: Carolina Castro

Image and Photography: José Pedro Mendes

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