"Malaria is our problem and it’s on us to deal with it”

Interview with Moussa Niangaly, the leader of the new MPIIB partner group in Mali

October 20, 2021

Doing field work is an essential part of malaria research. The Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology (MPIIB) is establishing a partner group at the Malaria Training and Research Center (MRTC) in Bamako, Mali to conduct research in a region strongly affected by the disease. With approximately 6.5 million cases and over 11.000 deaths in 2019, Malaria is still one of the biggest public health problems in Mali.
The disease is transmitted to humans by mosquitos infected with the malaria parasite. During dry seasons the parasites are able to survive without mosquitos to spread them. The mechanism behind the parasites’ survival and their interaction with the human host will be the focus of the five-year research collaboration. The results have the potential to advance malaria control strategies on site and help in eliminating the disease. Moussa Niangaly, who just spent eight months as a researcher in Silvia Portugal’s lab at the MPIIB will lead the new international partner group. In the interview, he talks about the collaboration, his view on malaria control strategies and why it is exciting to be a scientist.

How did your collaboration with the MPIIB start?

I first met Silvia in 2011, when I got a position as a clinical investigator at the MRTC and worked for a cohort study she was involved in. Then I got a fellowship at the European Vaccine Initiative which is linked to the University of Heidelberg where Silvia was a junior group leader. She invited me to join her lab to learn malaria parasite culturing and to help her team to image parasites. Since then we’ve kept in touch. Once Silvia got the position of group leader at the MPIIB, the possibility of an international partner group was a great opportunity for us to collaborate on our common scientific interest and explore the asymptomatic malaria parasite during the dry season. With our research, we’re hoping to contribute to malaria control and elimination strategies.

How did you spend your research residency here at the MPIIB?

I arrived here in January 2021. The time was challenging at first, and not just because of the corona situation. I am a medical doctor, I’ve never deeply worked in biology or in a lab setting. The hardest challenge was to transform my expertise. During my stay here, I learned some of the techniques, like PCR and DNA extraction, that we’ll need for the study we’re going to do in Mali.

What were your expectations before coming here?

Malaria is a public health problem in African countries and particularly in Mali where a great part of the population is living in poverty. It is our problem, so it is us who have to really deal with it. There is no one who can work against the disease more than us. That's why I'm here: The collaboration with the MPIIB can really help us: it’s a great opportunity for learning techniques and fundamental research and apply them to practical conditions in the field.

What are you planning to do during the research partnership with the MPIIB?

The first step is to establish a lab space and equipment for my group in Bamako, and recruit the team there. I also have to do the administrative work, I need to get the project protocol approved by the ethics committee of the Charité in Berlin, and the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Pharmacy at my home institution in Mali.

In January 2022, we plan to recruit the study participants. We are expecting to have around 250 participants in our study. What we need for that is a community consent from the study site, the village where we’re planning to do the research. The community consent needs to be approved by all the representatives there, like the chief of the village and the community health center.

Once we have that, we can start the sample collection: to explore the asymptomatic malaria cases during the transmission season, we’ll collect blood samples from all study participants. We will focus on participants who have a positive PCR test for asymptomatic malaria during enrollment. Blood samples will be collected also from participants in their first episode of malaria and participants with clinical malaria in the dry season. The samples will first be analyzed in Mali, further analyses will be done at the MPIIB.

What do you hope to achieve during the five years?

We are hoping to contribute to malaria control and elimination strategies. Right now, most of the disease control and elimination strategies are focused on the acute and symptomatic cases. But we know that the asymptomatic cases from the dry season are the main source of mosquito contamination at the beginning of the transmission season. If all the elimination efforts are based on the clinical part of the disease, we miss a whole part of the story.

But it’s not only the scientific work that helps the elimination strategies. The human-made environment and infrastructure also play a role in the presence of mosquitos transmitting the disease. We as scientists can make our contribution, but managing factors like sanitation and waste collection in a way that avoids mosquitos, needs to be included in the eradication efforts as well.

How did you get into science?

That’s a long story. When I was a high school student in Mali in 1998, I met Dr. Kassoum Kayentao, a researcher from the MRTC—who is actually my boss now. He came with his team to Koro, my village, to do field research on malaria. We met one evening and from our conversation we quickly realized that we both wanted to work together. Because I knew the village and the people there, he recruited me as a local guide for three months. I was the link between the researchers and the study participants. If the researchers needed to examine the participants or collect samples from them, I was the one to arrange the contact.

Two years later in 2000, I got my bachelor and was admitted to the University of Sciences, Techniques and Technologies, oriented to the Faculty of Medicine in Bamako where Dr. Kayentao is doing his research. We’ve kept in touch during this time and after the end of my studies, I went to see him again and asked, if I could write my thesis with him which he accepted. And from there on, I was doing science.

But I wanted to become a doctor even before the research team came to my village: I was always someone who wanted to help people and I was always playing the role of medical staff among my childhood friends.

What do you enjoy about working in science?

Before working in science, I was practicing medicine in the hospital during my medical studies. Often, as medical doctors we are only prescribing medication and sending the patient to the pharmacy. So, when I was thinking about who is behind the medication, I realized that scientists are the ones to do the first step. For me, what’s exciting is that today’s clinical research is tomorrow’s medical practice. Without science, there is no medication.

The interview was conducted by Hanna Leitner.

Moussa Niangaly is the leader of the Max Planck partner group at the Malaria Training and Research Center in Bamako, Mali. After finishing his medical studies, he has been working in clinical research since 2009. His research work has been mostly focused on malaria and pregnancy and more recently on malaria naturally acquired immunity.



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