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Hamburg institute aims to fill in gaps in malaria research

Even though researchers have been studying malaria for more than a century, it remains a poorly understood disease. Scientists at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg are trying to change that.

At the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, researchers don’t have to travel to the tropics to study malaria – they simply head to the attic.

To get to the top floor at German’s oldest and best-known tropics institute, employees have to navigate a dark, foreboding flight of stairs. The walls are unplastered and the air is stale. But Iris Bruchhaus doesn’t mind. She’s spent the last four years researching malaria, and has grown accustomed to a dark and dank environment.

When she reaches the top, Bruchhaus faces a long corridor with chambers made of wire mesh. There are two small rooms here. When she enters, the researcher is met by a wall of hot, moist air. The rooms are heated to a temperature of 28 degrees Celsius, with a humidity level of 70 percent. Bruchhaus has come upstairs to feed the insects: this is where anopheles mosquitoes are bred.

Mosquito larvae swim through the water in white plastic bowls, while hatched mosquitoes buzz around in transparent plastic boxes with the opening blocked by nets.

“These mosquitoes are not dangerous for humans,” Bruchhaus says. “They only transmit rodent malaria.”

The really dangerous ones responsible for spreading the deadly “Malaria tropica” are sealed away in test tubes in the BNI’s laboratories. The disease’s symptoms are similar to influenza-like symptoms with patients complaining of fever, nausea and diarrhea.

A deadly disease

A mosquito bites an arm

An anopheles mosquito at work

According to the WHO, more than 650,000 people died of malaria tropica in 2010 alone. Treatment must be administered early to avoid serious organ damage. But “Malaria tropica” and “rodent malaria” are only two of 200 strains of the disease.

Mosquitoes are the main carriers of the pathogen, biting and infecting creatures of all shapes and sizes - from reptiles to birds, rodents and other mammals. The parasite they transmit, called plasmodium, is passed on to new host animals.

“We just received blood samples from geckos that a colleague in Nigeria sent us. We found the malaria pathogen in almost all of them. And you find new species, too, because nobody is looking at a gecko in Nigeria to find malaria,” Iris Bruchhaus says.

She specializes in studying malaria in humans, and her goal is to determine how the infected red blood cells manage to fasten themselves to the walls of the veins while the pathogen multiplies in the cells. If that question could be answered, she says, medication could be developed to prevent that process.

There are plenty of unanswered questions about how exactly malaria develops. When a mosquito bites, the pathogen enters the bloodstream and ends up in the liver, where it multiples in liver cells and wreaks havoc on the body as a so-called merozoite surface protein.

The pathogen infects and penetrates red blood cells, changing the cells’ shape and attaching itself to the walls of the blood vessels, continuing to multiply until the cells burst and release more merozoites into the blood stream.

When a large number of red blood cells have been affected, the body begins to suffer from anemia and vascular disease. A few floors down at the lab in Hamburg, researchers are studying this process, too.

Long drawn-out research

Peering over malaria researcher Irish Bruchhaus’ shoulder as she looks through a microscope

Iris Bruchhaus has spent four years studying the deadly tropical disease

Iris Bruchhaus walks across chilly, gray linoleum floors under the laboratory’s cool light, passing machines, shelves of test tubes, microscopes and ominous signs warning of the danger employees face.

An office birthday calendar plan, smiley-face stickers and postcards hanging on the wall temper the otherwise sterile and structured environment of the laboratory. Machines whir and beep when they have completed their task, as researchers in long, white coats pipette and analyze their samples.

Bruchhaus takes a seat at a VarioMacs Separator, a machine that employs magnets to separate various stages of merozoites from each other. While the pathogen multiplies in the red blood cells, the cell too is digested. But the meorzoit can’t use the hemoglobin in the cell. The iron in turn gathers in the cell, allowing it to be attracted and isolated by magnets.

It is a complicated and arduous process that lasts several hours. Often, the researchers only have an hour’s time at the machine and have to delegate the merozoite separation process to a technical assistant. As is often the case, scientists and researchers at the Bernhard Nocht Institute spend much of their valuable time writing proposals, organizing the lab or answering requests.

No worries in Europe

Iris Bruchhaus finishes up her paperwork in her office, overlooking Hamburg’s scenic port – one of Europe’s largest - where container ships don’t just bring in goods from around the world b insects. “Because of climate change and transport, mosquitoes are entering areas that they would have never reached before,” she says.

Still, Bruchhaus says there is no reason to fear traditional tropical diseases here in Europe, adding that they spread quickly in the affected countries because of poor hygienic conditions.

“There’s still so much to research,” the malaria scientist says. One thing Bruchhaus is certain of - there’s little danger of boredom creeping into her work until she retires.

Author: Michaela Führer /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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