ERC Starting Grant for Malaria Research
7 March 2018
European Research Council grants approximately 1.5 million euros to Dr Silvia Portugal
Heidelberg malaria researcher Dr Silvia Portugal has been awarded a highly endowed ERC Starting Grant for excellent young researchers from the European Research Council (ERC). The grant is earmarked for a five-year project to investigate how malaria pathogens survive the dry season. The ERC grant totals nearly 1.5 million euros. Dr Portugal is a junior research group leader in the Parasitology Department at the Infectious Disease Centre of the Medical Faculty Heidelberg at Ruperto Carola.
In tropical countries, the rainy season is also accompanied by malaria outbreaks, because only then is there enough water for the pathogen-transmitting Anopheles mosquitoes to multiply at an explosive rate. But how does the Plasmodium falciparum malaria pathogen survive the dry season in its transmission areas, where there are barely any surfaces of water for the mosquito larvae to develop? It is known that infected persons who are not sick are a critical transmission reservoir for the parasite. It is able to adapt itself during the dry season so the infection remains symptomless. The pathogen's successful game of "hide-and-seek" appears to have genetic origins, according to Dr Portugal.
In her ERC project, the parasitologist and her team will study the mechanisms that keep the immune system from detecting the parasite. The researchers will also explore how it resumes transmission once the rainy season sets in. In addition to studying the signal pathways and metabolic profiles of the parasite, Dr Portugal is particularly interested in the so-called PfEMP1 protein, which exists in different variants and helps blood cells infected with the Plasmodium falciparum pathogen stick to the interior wall of blood vessels.
Silvia Portugal (b. 1980) studied biology at the University of Porto and earned her doctorate from the University of Lisbon. She pursued research at the University of São Paulo in Brazil and spent five years at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda (USA). In 2016, she was given a junior research group funded by the German Centre for Infection Research. The group is located in the Parasitology Department under the direction of Prof. Dr Michael Lanzer. Her research has earned her multiple awards.
The European Research Council awards the Starting Grant to excellent young researchers. Funding is awarded based on the scientific excellence of the young researchers and the innovative potential of their research ideas.