“I have to say my mother is the woman behind my success,” said Dr Joshua Tan – a Malaysian scientist whose research efforts in eradicating malaria have been widely recognised globally.

“She wanted to pursue a career, but when she had my siblings and I, she felt that it was more important to raise us, so she became a full-time mother,” said the 28-year-old.

Discovery of new antibodies against malaria parasites

After completing his undergraduate studies at Monash University in Malaysia and Australia, Tan enrolled in a four-year postgraduate programme in Infection, Immunology and Translational Medicine. In 2012, he underwent an attachment in Kilifi, a malaria-endemic town in Kenya, for his third rotation as a first year University of Oxford PhD candidate. There, Tan began researching on antibodies that would potentially target the malaria parasite’s diverse and continuously changing protein coat.

“The project aimed to look for ‘cross-reactive’ antibodies that can target red blood cells infected by different strains of the parasite that causes the most serious form of malaria. At that point, it was thought that such antibodies either did not exist or were extremely rare,” Tan said.

In 2015, Tan and his comrades in research from the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) in Bellinzona, Switzerland, unveiled the groundbreaking discovery of new antibodies that broadly target malaria parasites.

“The new antibodies that we have identified can target different strains of malaria parasites, and so it is possible that they may be useful in protecting malaria-exposed individuals from a variety of parasite strains,” Tan explained, adding the antibodies were able to destroy the parasite-infected red blood cells by recruiting white blood cells to ingest them.

"It is amazing that after more than 100 years of research in this field we can still find a new type of antibody. This shows how human studies can advance our understanding of basic mechanisms of defence and open up new avenues for therapy and vaccination,” said Antonio Lanzavecchia, Professor of Human Immunology and director of the IRB.

The search for a malaria vaccine

Along with researchers Kathrin Pieper and Luca Piccoli, Tan published their findings in the scientific journal Nature in the article entitled, “A LAIR1 Insertion Generates Broadly Reactive Antibodies Against Malaria Variant Antigens”.

On 26 January the following year, the researchers were presented with the Pfizer Research Foundation Prize – a prestigious research award in Switzerland – in the “Infectious disease, Rheumatology and Immunology” category at the 26th Pfizer Awards ceremony held in Zurich.

The award was swiftly followed by another –Tan became the first Malaysian to receive the Oxford Graduate Research Prize in 2016 for the outstanding work performed during his PhD. He also received a four-year Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Wellcome Trust, with which he can continue his research on the cure for malaria.

“This work will help to identify antibodies that protect people who are exposed to malaria, potentially including cross-reactive antibodies, against invariant Plasmodium falciparum proteins,” he said. “This may identify potential candidates for a malaria vaccine.” MIMS

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