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Malaria Research Wins UVA Biologist a Coveted NSF CAREER Award

Apr 19, 2021 |
Assistant Professor of Biology Jennifer Güler studies the genetic and metabolic mechanisms that allow malaria to adapt to and survive anti-malarial medications.
Molly Angevine

As we struggle to come to terms with the fact that more than half a million lives have been lost to COVID-19 in the United States, it can be easy to forget that nearly as many people – mostly children under the age of five – die from malaria every single year.

Unlike the coronavirus, malaria is caused by a single-celled, mosquito-borne parasite, but like a virus, it can adapt to survive a variety of challenges that could wipe it out completely. Jennifer Güler, an assistant biology professor in UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, studies how the malaria parasite responds to changes in its environment that are hostile to its survival.

In recognition of that work, Güler recently won the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award, one of the most sought-after honors for early-career faculty members whose work in both the lab and the classroom shows exceptional promise, and one that will provide an important source of funding for further research.

“Ultimately, what we learn could help us find a better way to treat this disease,” Güler said.

Over the course of its life cycle, the malaria parasite must be able to adapt to the conditions that allow it to survive in the body of a mosquito, in the liver of an infected host, or in a host’s bloodstream before it infects another mosquito. Evolution has also equipped it with the capacity to develop a resistance to the drugs that researchers develop to defeat it. During a collaboration with Jason Papin, a professor of biomedical engineering in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Güler and her team used computational modeling to learn more about how the malaria parasite survives when faced with these drugs. As a result of that partnership, Güler now uses laboratory studies with parasites that are grown outside of the human body to gather more details on malaria’s pathways to survival. The combination of modeling and laboratory experiments gives her a powerful approach to understanding the complexities of cellular behavior.

Another challenge researchers face is that the malaria protozoan has both unique cell structures and a unique genome that allow it to respond to stress very differently from other living organisms.

“We don’t really understand how they do this, and that’s what we want to study, and ultimately, if we can learn how they adapt to stress, maybe we can learn how to keep them from adapting,” Güler said.

But the capacity for the malaria parasite to adapt genetically over generations is only part of the story. Güler is also examining how they change their metabolism in real time to respond immediately to changes in their environment, much like we might adopt behavioral methods like wearing masks and social distancing to survive a pandemic.

“The CAREER will help us look, specifically, at how the parasites respond to stress. So, if they’re in one of these new environments and it’s stressful for them — maybe there’s a limiting nutrient or a drug present and it’s causing stress — what sort of programs are going on inside that cell, or inside that protozoan, that allow it to survive,” Güler said.

“Dr. Güler’s project is a beautiful integration of modeling and experiment to address an incredibly important biomedical challenge,” Papin said. “Her focus on understanding the metabolism of the malaria parasite with the use of cutting-edge experimental and computational modeling tools will have a significant impact in the field.”

The award brings with it research funds of more than $565,000 for the next five years. The funding also will help Güler advance her goals as an educator.

Three-dimensional images of the coronavirus and a human epithelial cell developed for use in a program called “Infectious Disease in 3D,” a virtual learning environment created by Jennifer Güler and her team.

With the help of 3D visualization specialist Arin Bennet from the UVA Library’s Scholars’ Lab, Biology Laboratory Specialist Michelle Warthan and Assistant Professor of Media Studies Sean Duncan, Güler developed an internship program for undergraduates called “Infectious Disease in 3D” (or “ID in 3D”). The program uses virtual reality to give students a new way to explore the subject — an approach, Güler added, that is both more engaging and that leads to greater retention of course material than having students simply listen to a lecture.

“We’ve been able use VR modeling and animation tools to expedite the creation of content which seeks to depict and clarify various processes involved with communicable disease,” Bennet said. “Inside the headset, students ‘shrink down’ and come face-to-face with these microscopic events and are able to better understand their causation and effects. Having the ability to put on a headset and fully immerse students in a given subject is immensely powerful from a story-telling perspective and affords a clarity and pacing that traditional 2D textbook illustrations sometimes fail to provide. “

With the help of the funding provided by the CAREER Award, Güler plans to take the project a step further by bringing the concept of virtual-reality to K-12 students and teachers in the public school community.

“We’re going to try to understand what challenges there are to bringing virtual reality into the classrooms, and we’re going to do that by interacting with teachers to introduce them to some of the virtual reality tools that are out there,” Güler said about the program that will be called “VR-ED.” “And then we’re also going to bring in some of the students from the local schools to work on the program with UVA undergrads.”

“Local school systems are enthusiastically supportive of Jenny’s effort to engage their students and teachers with the program,” said Deborah Roach, chair of the College’s Department of Biology. “As it expands, this program has the potential to place UVA on the map as a leader in the creation of VR educational resources.”