UCI Professor Researches Cure for Zika Virus and Malaria

By Jeanine Erikat

UCI Professor Anthony James is currently working with a team of scientists to find cures for malaria and Zika virus. (Courtesy of UCI Faculty)

UCI Professor Anthony James is currently working with a team of scientists to find cures for malaria and Zika virus. (Courtesy of UCI Faculty)

Professor Anthony James, a distinguished professor at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine and School of

Biological Sciences, is currently working with a team of scientists to find  a cure for malaria in a lab on UCI’s campus, using a genetic technique which may be applied to mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.

Malaria is spread by the female mosquito who expels her saliva and simultaneously injects parasites into the human bloodstream as she begins to draw blood from her victim. When the malaria-causing parasite is injected into the human bloodstream, it leads to fever, aches, vomiting and, in severe cases, organ failure, seizures and coma. In 2015 alone, malaria killed 215 million people worldwide.

James’s team has been researching a cure for malaria for nearly 30 years. Previously, he researched solutions for dengue fever, also a mosquito-borne illness, and is now beginning to look at how his research may contribute to Zika virus transmission.

However, James stresses that despite extensive and sometimes graphic coverage of Zika virus in the media, malaria still poses a greater threat.

“The numbers of people that are affected by Zika are much smaller than the people affected by dengue, and then again much smaller than the number of people affected by malaria,” said James. “In a larger sense Zika is not as dangerous as the other two diseases.”

James is seeking to curb the spread of malaria through two principal approaches: population modification and population suppression.

Population modification is a sustainable cure which will prevent the mosquito from ever being able to transmit the virus, even if the mosquito itself gets infected again, by blocking transmission.   This is done by genetically engineering the mosquitoes with malaria-blocking genes, which will spread to greater mosquito populations through reproduction, and ultimately eliminate the threat of mosquitoes transmitting the disease to humans. James and his research team build the genes in the lab, and microinject them into mosquitoes they keep in the lab.

Another method, though not as ideal, is population suppression. James refers to this method as “a mimic for insecticide,” which are genetic tools designed to kill infected mosquito populations.

Such research of population modification and suppression has been applied similarly for dengue fever and has helped create tools for Zika, as well.

Professor James and his team’s next step is to test their research, after getting regulatory approval as well as community approval from people who live in the areas that would be tested. The area of research is still to be determined.

Professor James mentions that the team is still working on building community engagement and committing financial resources to the research, in order to further its practical impact.

“Funding is always a challenge,” he admits. “We also have committed effort to community engagement and working with regulatory agencies.”

Professor James encourages students to consider this research as a possible career path, due to today’s necessity in studying infectious diseases.

“There’s a lot to do in this area,” he says. “It’s really important that if students are interested in it they follow their interest and have the opportunity to work on it.”