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Malaria: a sticky problem at the Edinburgh International Science Festival

Researchers from Alex Rowe’s lab in the School of Biological Sciences went to the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April 2018 to talk about their research on severe malaria.

A visitor to the Edinburgh International Science Festival learning about sticky red blood cells in malaria infection
A visitor to the Edinburgh International Science Festival learning about sticky red blood cells in malaria infection

Malaria is still one of the deadliest diseases in the world – each year over 0.5 million people die from the disease and another 200 million are infected. 

The disease is caused by Plasmodium parasites, which are transmitted to humans by the bites of infected mosquitoes.  The parasites travel from the skin to the liver, where they grow before bursting into the bloodstream and infecting the red blood cells.

Sticky cells

One of the big problems in malaria is that the red blood cells infected with malaria get very sticky.  

The infected cells can then stick both onto the surface of uninfected cells, and to the linings of blood vessels, which blocks blood flow like hair stuck in a plug hole.

Understanding more about these sticky interactions is the main focus of work in Alex's Rowe lab in the School of Biological Sciences.  They hope that that if they understand more about the stickiness they may be able to find out ways to stop the stickiness and design new treatments for severe malaria.  

Engaging visitors at the Edinburgh International Science Festival

In April 2018 two doctors studying for a PhD in the Rowe lab, Fiona McQuaid and Olivia Swann, took their work to the Edinburgh International Science Festival to explain what they are studying and how new understanding is helping to tackle the disease.

Sliding or sticking in the tube

To give a hands-on demonstration of just what happens when red blood cells are infected with malaria, the team used red blood cell toys and red tubing.

Visitors compared how many of the “uninfected” red blood cells (without Velcro) could slide through the "blood vessel" tube, with how many of the “infected” red cells (with Velcro) could pass through a similar sticky tube. 

Everyone had a lot of fun – and the visitors, young and old, got real insight into what malaria infection does to a patient and why more research is still needed before malaria can be beaten.

 

Alex Rowe with a young visitor at the Edinburgh International Science Festival
Alex Rowe with a young visitor at the Edinburgh International Science Festival
Demonstrating how sticky red blood cells get stuck in a blood vessel
Demonstrating how sticky red blood cells get stuck in a blood vessel
red blood cell soft toys with velcro
Red blood cells infected with malaria stick together
Malaria display at the Edinburgh International Science Festival
Fiona McQuaid and Livvy Swann with another of the younger visitors
Learning about malaria at the EISF
Learning about malaria and how research in Edinburgh is contributing new knowledge that will help tackle the disease

Find out more

For more information about the work in the Rowe lab visit their website

Rowe lab website