FIU awarded $3.1 million for research that could swat Zika, malaria

 

Researchers are studying how to increase the number of <i>Wolbachia</i> bacteria in fruit flies to better understand how the bacteria interacts with insect cells.

Researchers are studying how to increase the number of Wolbachia bacteria in fruit flies to better understand how the bacteria interacts with insect cells.

Two grants totaling more than $3.1 million are helping researchers at FIU’s Biomolecular Sciences Institute wage war against Zika and malaria.

Laura Serbus, assistant professor of biology, is using a three-year $650,000 National Science Foundation grant to model the growth of Wolbachia bacteria in fruit flies. Her work has the potential to help researchers find ways of curbing the spread of viruses like Zika.

“Mosquitoes with higher amounts of Wolbachia are less likely to transmit Zika or other viruses,” Serbus said. “One of the big questions for my lab is how do Wolbachia interact with insect cells overall.”

While there have been more than 120 reported cases of Zika in Florida so far this year, the virus affected nearly 1,500 people in the state in 2016. Several government entities –both local and national– are working with scientists and researchers to avoid another serious outbreak in the future.

Jun Li, associate professor of biology, is leveraging a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to discover how to block the transmission of malaria, a tropical disease that affects 200 million new people annually globally, according to the World Health Organization.

FIU professors awarded $3.1 million for research that could swat Zika, malaria

As malaria is only spread through the bite of an Anopheles mosquito, not by person-to-person contact, preventing mosquitoes from spreading malaria would stop this killer disease in its tracks. Li and his researchers discovered one protein, that when blocked, significantly reduces the mosquito’s ability to transmit the disease.

Li’s team is working with naturally occurring and easy-to-acquire fungal molecules that could interfere with these proteins and eliminate the transmission of malaria from patient to mosquito.

“If we can find these powerful molecules, then we can develop a drug for malaria patients,” Li said. “After malaria patients take this type of drug, they won’t be able to help transmit the disease to mosquitoes. We can break the transmission cycle of malaria.”


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