His enthusiasm for the research being done at Seattle BioMed, a Salal Credit Union Community Business Partner, is nearly as infectious as the diseases he’s working to combat. Dr. Ashley Vaughan is a senior scientist in Seattle BioMed’s Malaria Program and an expert in infectious diseases. His research focuses on identifying weaknesses that can make diseases such as malaria vulnerable to vaccines.
Worldwide, an estimated 300 to 500 million people are infected with malaria each year. Of those infected, around 1,000,000, primarily women and children, will die. Children younger than five suffer the highest fatality rates from malaria, possibly because of their underdeveloped immune systems. It’s a global tragedy Dr. Vaughan and his collaborators are working to bring to an end.
Malaria is caused by a parasite that enters its human host via the bite of an infected mosquito. The parasite initially travels to the liver and then, after a week, enters your bloodstream. Once the parasite reaches the bloodstream, replication in red blood cells begins, and the disease becomes much harder to fight. This is because red blood cells infected with malaria parasites confuse our immune system. Furthermore, malaria parasites are becoming more resistant to existing treatments, making development of a malaria vaccine all the more critical.
The key, according to Dr. Vaughan, is to exploit “chokepoints” in the life stages of the disease where parasite numbers are low—this includes the liver stage. One exciting avenue of research involves Genetically Attenuated Parasites (GAPs). In experimental trials, the parasites are genetically manipulated to die when they reach the liver. If an uninfected person is injected with these GAPs, the dying parasites in the person’s liver will trigger an immune response. That way, according to Dr. Vaughan, if the person encounters “wild type” malaria (i.e. outside the laboratory), that person’s body is already prepared to kill the parasite when it reaches the liver, thereby preventing the blood-stage infection—the perfect vaccine. Early trials have produced good results, and a second generation of GAPs, due to be tested soon, may prove even better.
Dr. Vaughan, who has a PhD in Medical Parasitology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, came to Seattle BioMed in large part because it is an “epicenter of global health research.” In fact, Seattle BioMed is one of only four locations in the world with a Malaria Clinical Trials Center where treatments can be tested under rigidly controlled circumstances. Not only does Seattle have world-class scientists such as Dr. Vaughan, experienced in malaria and clinical trials, it is populated by people who understand the benefits of research and are willing to support it, even to the point of allowing themselves to be infected—briefly—in the name of science.
Seattle BioMed isn’t just concerned with the eradication of infectious diseases; the non-profit organization is also focused on supporting the next generation of scientists and researchers. BioQuest Academy is a two-week program in which high school students learn about the lab and research methodology, and then design an experiment themselves. Dr. Vaughan and his colleagues act as mentors and are proud to report that many graduates of BioQuest Academy have gone on to pursue careers in the Life Sciences. BioMed also hires three “Global Health Interns” each year—undergraduate students who do real-life, hands-on work in the lab. Needless to say, these positions are hotly contested each year!
Salal Credit Union is extremely proud to have Seattle BioMed as a Community Business Partner. We encourage everyone to learn more about the rich Global Health community we have in Seattle thanks in part to the pioneering spirit of Seattle BioMed. While we in Seattle are relatively safe from malaria, the consequences of infectious diseases impact the entire globe. To learn more about Seattle BioMed, the research they do, the diseases they fight, and ways you can support their efforts, please visit www.seattlebiomed.org.
If you are interested in becoming a Community Business Partner (CBP), or would like more information on the many benefits of being a Salal CBP, please contact Robert King, Senior Business Development Specialist, at email@example.com or at 206.650.1306.