Erin Kelly, a rising Senior majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, has earned the Peter T. Luckie Award for Outstanding Research at the Spring 2020 Undergraduate Research Exhibition. The exhibition, which was held April 15 – 17th, was conducted differently than in prior years. Due to the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic the event was forced to adapt its usual in-person format to a new virtual one. Presentations were posted digitally with public access from April 15th beginning at 4:00 pm through April 17th ending at 4:00 pm. Due to concerns over intellectual property rights, student presentations were only made available for viewing by the public during this time.
Erin’s research project was entitled “Investigating the Protein PF3D7_0420300 as a Potential Drug Target in the Malaria Inducing Parasite Plasmodium falciparum.” Her research aims to characterize a potential drug target in Plasmodium falciparum, which is a protozoan parasite that invades human red blood cells causing malaria. Malaria is a devastating disease characterized by high fevers and, according to a 2018 World Health Organization (WHO) Report, resulted in 219 million people becoming infected, with nearly 435,000 resulting in death. Exacerbating the issue is that while several antimalarials exist, Plasmodium falciparum are becoming increasingly resistant to currently known medications.
The need to combat Plasmodium falciparum, and ultimately malaria, has never been greater. In order to do so a better understanding of the parasite is required, down to the molecular level. Plasmodium falciparum has several functional proteins, yet much of its life cycle appears to be regulated in the blood system by proteins known as transcription factors (ApiAP2 proteins).
Erin is working to understand the role of a specific transcription factor within the parasite (PF3D7_0420300). Using a circular piece of DNA, in which she constructed, she is working to induce a misfold of PF3D7_0420300 that will render it useless. By observing how the protein responds without the function of the now inert protein, she hopes to gain valuable insight into the protein’s purpose within the parasite, and ultimately whether or not the protein is a potential target for future medications.
“Plasmodium are challenging to combat with drugs because they are eukaryotic organisms, meaning they are somewhat closely related to humans,” Erin said. “So, when developing anti-malarial drugs, the drugs must have a target that can only be found within the plasmodium, and not within a human.” Erin continued “The apiAP2 protein transcription factors that I am investigating happen to have ancestry in plants, which are non-eukaryotic. This provides the perfect target to attack in Plasmodium falciparum that will not hurt people if the drug was taken into the human body.
Erin believes that once she has fully characterized PF3D7_0420300 it will prove to be suitable target for new anti-malarial medications. Her hope is that her research can provide insight into the development of new medications that could not only save the lived of hundred of thousands or people, but also prevent the socioeconomic impacts malaria has inflicted in tropic and subtopic regions around the globe.