Faculty Research in the News

Llinás brings new approach to age-old mystery of malaria

In what might be one of medicine's oldest puzzles, molecular biologist Manuel Llinás marvels at how little modern researchers know about how the pieces fit together.

"Malaria is one of the oldest diseases known to mankind, but even now, more than 2 million people die of it every year. No vaccine has ever been developed," said Llinás, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. "Compared to most other diseases with familiar names, malaria remains a mystery."

Llinás came to Princeton to change that. Since arriving in July 2005, he has spent his time exploring the genetic code of Plasmodium, the single-celled parasite that invades the bloodstream and causes the disease. He hopes his work will lead to a vaccine someday or at least a new way to approach the disease, which often proves fatal in young children, who usually cannot withstand its severe flu-like symptoms.

"Malaria is growing resistant to older drug treatments — the parasites are getting used to what we throw at them," Llinás said. "The most effective treatments we have are 50 years old. That's why in my research I'm trying to focus on what we don't know."

To scientists like Llinás, who specialize in reading a creature's genes, what we don't know is a lot. Although it has long been understood that mosquitoes carry the parasite to the human bloodstream, where the invader saps nutrients from red blood cells, the nitty-gritty details of this interaction with the host are lacking. Part of the trouble is that the genes that control parasite development in red blood cells are proving hard to decipher. Read More

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