Student recognized for genetic research on malaria

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As an undergraduate working in malaria researcher Dyann Wirth’s lab at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Caleb Irvine was curious why malaria transmission was on the uptick in the Thiès region of Senegal, in spite of efforts to control the disease there. In July 2014, he traveled there to study the DNA of the most common malaria parasite in the region and uncovered important new information about recent genetic changes in the parasite population. In recognition of his efforts, he was honored with a Harvard College award called the Hoopes Prize.

Irvine was following up on the Wirth lab’s recent finding of a rebound in genetic diversity in the most prevalent malaria parasite in the region, Plasmodium falciparum — a potentially worrisome trend that suggested problems with malaria control efforts in Thiès.

But Irvine’s finding — that the parasite’s genetic diversity had declined following its rebound — “provided new evidence showing that fluctuations in genetic diversity might not necessarily indicate a problem with malaria control efforts,” explained Rachel Daniels, research scientist in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, who served as a mentor to Irvine in the Wirth lab along with principal research scientist Sarah Volkman. “Caleb’s results raised interesting questions that we hope to further explore about how parasite populations may change in response to pressure — both from the natural environment and human interventions.”

Irvine’s novel approaches and observations “will likely result in a major study,” said Wirth, who nominated Irvine for the prize.