Manuel Llinás, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of chemistry has been selected as one of six Penn State faculty members to receive the 2021 Faculty Scholar Medals for Outstanding Achievement.
Established in 1980, the award recognizes scholarly or creative excellence represented by a single contribution or a series of contributions around a coherent theme. A committee of peers reviews nominations and selects candidates.
Nominators said Llinás has an accomplished record of malaria research that has led to major advances in global health. By continuous pioneering efforts and innovations in the field, nominators said, he has “positioned himself as a visible and effective leader.”
Llinás’ research hits home on several fronts. In 2014, he made a seminal discovery on the molecular mechanisms that drive the life cycle of the malaria parasite. This discovery offers novel opportunities for the development of a desperately needed malaria vaccine. The World Health Organization reports that more than 400,000 people die annually from malaria, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 5.
This research unveiled a fundamental link in the understanding of developmental biology for malaria because it demonstrated how the parasite commits to a sexual cycle. The parasite forms both sexual and asexual stages inside humans. The “sexual stage” parasites are what is transmitted to mosquitos, which then pass the parasite (via a mosquito bite) to the next human host.
More recently, he and his research group published follow-up studies that identified the exact targets and mechanisms for this master regulator. Specifically, Llinás identified the program guiding the development of a small number of cells capable of being transmitted to mosquitoes. Experts say a transmission-blocking vaccine could be used to halt the spread of malaria.
“This work required the technical innovation that Dr. Llinás is known for, including new and powerful DNA sequencing and transcriptomics techniques,” a nominator said.
As part of the Malaria Drug Accelerator (MalDA) consortium funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Llinás is also using his discoveries to identify new therapeutics for the disease. Researchers are seeking the most effective treatment that’s the least likely to develop drug resistance, a growing concern with current therapies.
Through Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD) and the Huck Center for Malaria Research (CMaR), Llinás is leading research that explores all stages of the parasite life cycle. His approaches for understanding and combating the parasite dip into several disciplines including genomics, gene regulation, molecular parasitology, biochemistry and metabolomics.
“I have followed the career of Manuel Llinás closely over the past 12 years,” a nominator said. “I consider him among the top investigators worldwide who are studying the molecular and cellular biology of malaria parasites. This international field includes dozens of scientists, including major international program leaders who established their labs many years before Dr. Llinás even began his important work.”