Nicole Leonie Bertschi

Country: Switzerland, Date of birth: 1987
Researcher, Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH)
Research Area: Gene Regulation

Supported Project: “Functional exploration of regulators of virulence gene expression in Plasmodium falciparum

“In malaria research, there is still much to discover”

Even after years of conducting intensive laboratory research, Nicole Bertschi is amazed at the versatility of Plasmodium falciparum, the malaria parasite that causes so much harm throughout Africa and Asia. While completing her PhD at Swiss TPH, she focused on a basic research question with a complex answer: how does the malaria parasite survive in humans? To discover the key, she looked at the parasite’s blood stage — the very moment in the disease’s life cycle that causes the typical symptoms of malaria, such as fever or anaemia. Once in the red blood cells, parasites are able to constantly change their shape so as to evade the immune response. They do so with the help of about 60 different PfEMP1-proteins. “Just one of these PFEMP1 proteins is activated at a time”, explains Bertschi. “By switching from one protein to another, the parasite is able to outsmart the immune system.”

Bertschi discovered that one single protein played an important role in regulating the other PfEMP1 proteins. Manipulating this single protein prevents the parasite from changing its shape and activates all 60 proteins at once, making the parasite more easily detectable by the immune system. These results could prove important for those developing new drugs and vaccines against malaria.