The BBVA Foundation is distinguishing, in this ninth edition of the Frontiers of Knowledge Award, in the Development Cooperation category researchers Pedro Alonso and Peter Myler, for their pivotal role in the fight against infectious diseases that affect millions of people throughout the developing world.
Alonso has fought to turn the tide against malaria through the use of insecticide treated bednets, and the trials of the first ever vaccine to achieve partial effectiveness against the disease Pedro Alonso highlighted “the award’s endorsement of multidisciplinarity and complementary strategies as the best way to tackle complex problems like the fight against infectious diseases.”
Malaria is a parasitic infection contracted each year by some 200 million people. Of this number, 400,000 will not survive, the great majority of them African children. It is in fact the fourth cause of infant mortality worldwide. It is transmitted by bites from Anopheles mosquitos infected in turn by the Plasmodium parasite, and there is as yet no vaccine that can stop contagion, although in the last 15 years, mortality rates have come down by as much as 60%.
“I had the honor of leading the first study which proved, against all expectations, that the use of insecticide treated bednets was highly effective,” explained Alonso. “It has since become a first line of control in the fight against malaria. A technology that costs little but is hugely beneficial.”
The Spaniard also played a key role in the development of a vaccine against malaria. “The vaccine we have is not perfect,” Alonso admits, “in fact it is far from being so. But it is still good enough for the WHO to authorize the launch of a trial program involving hundreds of thousands of children in three African countries.”
Genomics against neglected diseases
For his part, Myler led the genetic sequencing of the parasites causing leishmaniasis and Chagas disease, a milestone in basic research that has allowed to identify dozens of therapeutic targets for future vaccines and treatments.
Peter Myler is aware that the work being done by himself and his colleagues “is vital for the development of future drugs or even vaccines against these diseases.” He is also confident of their success, while aware that the parasites they face are sophisticated enemies. “The genome is like an organism’s instruction manual. It tells us about its internal mechanisms so we can find new tools to combat it effectively.”
Myler’s work has enabled the identification of dozens of new pharmacological targets and “has proved indispensable for the hundreds of research groups worldwide” investigating in the area. A number of drugs now at the trial stage are a product of Myler’s contributions, though he is quick to warn that none of them will provide a definitive solution for these diseases: “The problems is that parasites are continually turning resistant, so we will need to keep on developing new drugs.”