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Schooling malaria

23 October 2017
Students tackle real-world medicinal problems in the classroom

Walter White taught us how to break bad, but what if scientists and students came together to break good and find a cure for Malaria? 

If you had to solve a tricky problem, would you come to a solution more quickly on your own or with a team of talented people who had already cross-checked some of the data and would let you know if you were going off-course?

Imagine if all the world’s problems could be solved this way – through collaboration and information transfer. We’d be a lot more efficient. Some industries seem to have recognised this and it’s become acceptable practice, for example IT, but the same can’t be said for pharmaceuticals. This is due to the associated return on investment -  making drugs is an expensive business. However, as more deadly diseases continue to take their toll on the human population, a new approach to drug discovery needs to be considered, and that’s where University of Sydney staff and students have stepped in.

The Open Source Malaria consortium was conceived right here on campus by Associate Professor Matthew Todd in collaboration with a not-for-profit called the Medicines for Malaria Venture. Todd believed that by working openly and making all data publically available, an effective cure for malaria could be found more efficiently.

Malaria killed almost 2000 people per day in 2015 so the need for an effective form of treatment is more necessary than ever before, especially given resistance to existing treatments is already occurring.

The consortium has now grown to include 100s of researchers across 9 countries, who are all working together using a crowd-sourced approach. But it doesn’t end there, students are also getting involved – from high schoolers to first-year university students like James Townsend and Suleka Hersi.

Both James and Suleka are members of the chemistry Special Studies Program (SSP) and are completing their first-year of studies at the University of Sydney.

“Under the guidance and supervision of professional researchers, SSP chemistry allowed me to participate in real-world experiments and studies at just 18 years old.” James says.

The program is led by Dr Alice Williamson who was first author on the Open Source Malaria Project paper and works alongside Matthew Todd in the consortium.

“One major project we undertook was the synthesis of a new anti-malarial drug,” says Suleka.

“Thinking about developing a whole new malaria drug in the lab sounded exciting as I imagined the possibility that the drug I develop may be the cure of to one of the oldest and deadliest diseases known to man.”

“Eventually, after five weeks in the lab, we developed an antimalarial drug and I felt content knowing that even if it wasn’t active, we had worked as a team to help narrow down the list of possible cures for malaria.” She states.

In fact, several of the molecules were very active, and all of the data from the SSP students has been useful for the consortium.

 The hands-on program aims to extend each student’s laboratory experience and is perfect for those with a keen interest and aptitude for chemistry.

“We produced six novel antimalarial drugs and we learnt how to use an array of cutting edge experimental techniques such as atomic force microscopy.”

“It gave me a deeper understanding of what real research is about and it seriously sparked my interest for the subject.” Adds James.

This experience has created further opportunities for both students to learn and grow in their research careers.

“I think my participation with the chemistry Special Studies Program was the primary reason I received a placement in the Children’s Cancer Institute Summer Vacation Scholarship”, says James who will go on to complete an 8-week internship specifically within the Leukaemia Biology Program.

“At my interview, I was able to showcase the fact I already had hands-on experience with real-life research and that I was prepared for an internship at a professional research facility.” He says.

Both James and Suleka represent the future of research, so what do they think of crowd-sourcing information in an industry that has previously been very closed off?

“I think that this is an essential and monumental step in science as it has reduced secrecy and will hopefully speed up the process of finding a drug for this disease.”  Suleka states.

To find out more about the Open Source Malaria Project and learn about information sharing within the pharmaceutical industry, come along to our last Sydney Science Forum: Breaking Good hosted by Dr Alice Williamson on Wednesday 25 October in the Eastern Avenue Auditorium. Register here.

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