One day four years ago, JMU biology professor Chris Lantz ran out of mice for his parasitology lab. He quickly tried to find an alternative, and he accidentally chose what would become a new link in malaria remedy discovery: “knockout” mice.
These mice are genetically altered to lack a protein called interleukin-3, which assists the immune system in fighting off diseases.
JMU is one of the only labs in the world that have these knockout mice. Lantz brought them to JMU from his postdoctoral work at Harvard, where he studied infectious diseases.
Lantz divided the class into four groups: two of them had the normal — not genetically altered — mice, and two groups had the knockout mice. He had his students test the mice with the malaria parasite.
Malaria, transmitted through mosquito bites, displays symptoms like fever, headache, and vomiting, according to the World Health Organization. Symptoms usually appear between 10 to 15 days after the mosquito bite.
The two groups that infected the normal mice found that the mice had enlarged spleens: a sign of malaria. The two groups with the knockout mice had the largest change in spleen size of the two groups.
“I had never worked with the malaria parasite before that class,” Lantz said. “So when the students showed me the unusual results I figured they just used different techniques.”
When Lantz decided to try the experiment himself, his findings confirmed his students’ results. The protein-deficient knockout mice had a “more robust” immune system response to malaria than the normal mice.
“I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think,” Lantz said.
The mice lacking the IL-3 protein, which improves the body’s response to disease, had an increased chance for survival.
Lantz received a $250,000 grant in 2009 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to research a different parasite, however, his newer findings concerning the malaria parasite inspired him to pursue the discovery further.
Lantz teamed up with his longtime college friend Ken Roth, a visiting assistant professor of biology at JMU.
“We were graduate students and worked together in the same lab at the Medical College of Virginia in the 1990s,” Roth said. “We complement each other well in the lab.”
Lantz and Roth agree that the malaria project is very beneficial to students because it gives them a chance to conduct real investigative research. The professors are currently working with eight undergraduates and one graduate student on the project.
“I don’t like routine, ‘cookbook’ labs. I like the investigative labs,” Lantz said.
Anna Young, a senior biology major, says working on the research project, “makes you feel like your education here is really taking you to that next level.”
Young, who joined the knockout mice study last spring, will continue to work on the project next year. “It has brought light to what I am really passionate about,” Young said.
This project uses one of the largest student-accessible research labs in the department.
Kathryn Ogborn, a 2013 alumna, had worked on the project since fall 2011. She became interested in malaria because her mom is from Panama, a country heavily affected by the disease.
“I thought it would be really cool to work on something that affects developing nations so drastically,” Ogborn said.
Julianne Naples, a senior biology major, began working on the project this spring because she wants a career in the field of treatment and prevention of infectious diseases.
“From standard laboratory technique to advanced immunology research skills, I’ll be more prepared to enter the workforce or graduate school after college,” Naples said.
After 20 years of working with the IL-3 protein, Lantz was still shocked at the outcome of the testing.
“There is nothing in the literature that indicates IL-3 [protein] has anything to do with malaria,” Lantz said.
Lantz and Roth have spent countless hours educating themselves in the field of malaria immunology to try and make sense of their discovery.
Their goal for the project is to figure out, at the cellular level, what role this protein plays in a human’s immune system response to the malaria parasite. They agree that it’s naïve to think their research will “cure” malaria, but they hope it will lead to greater survival rates.
While certain individuals with weaker immune systems, like pregnant women and children, might be more vulnerable to the disease, healthy individuals can contract the disease as well.
In 2010, JMU alumnus John Goodman contracted malaria at the age of 23 during a mission trip in Malawi, Africa. The disease left him sick for nearly 72 hours.
“To say that I wanted to die would be the understatement of the century,” Goodman said. “My abdomen was writhing in pain. I laid down and all the sudden the vomiting started, and it didn’t stop for 14 hours.”
Since a vaccine has yet to be developed, the most effective and cheapest method to preventing malaria are bed nets. But the problem, according to Lantz and Roth, is getting the nets distributed and then educating people how to use them.
Lantz said a cure hasn’t been found has similar reasons, since “solutions are often simple,” but distribution is not.
Lantz and Roth are hopeful for the future of malaria research. They have submitted their work to the Infection and Immunity Journal, hoping it will be published and bring the scientific community one step closer to treating malaria.
“As I tell my students, ‘We’re doing a bunch of experiments to put together a puzzle,” Roth said. “Our puzzle, if it’s ever completed, will only complete one piece of a larger puzzle.’”
Contact Laura Trask at email@example.com.
This article has been changed to reflect the following correction:
It was originally reported that the knockout mice had smaller spleens than the normal mice. The knockout mice actually had larger spleens than the normal mice.