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Meet a Roadrunner: Kirsten Hanson, spotlight on a malaria scientist

Meet a Roadrunner: Kirsten Hanson, spotlight on a malaria scientist

Hanson’s research focuses on the cellular and developmental biology of malaria parasites.

(Dec. 3, 2018) -- UTSA Assistant Professor Kirsten Hanson conducts research focused on the cellular and developmental biology of Plasmodium parasites, the causative agents of malaria, a devastating global disease that causes upwards of 600,000 deaths each year.

Several years ago, she received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, enabling her and her team to develop and implement a 384 well plate format screen. They use the screen to find compounds that prevent liver stage parasites from developing and moving into the blood.

With the funding, Hanson and her research team have screened about 15,000 compounds to date at UTSA. They are currently investigating whether some of the best compounds will have the activity and safety profiles needed to enter the drug development pipeline as early leads to fight malaria.

Recently, she shared her research at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting as part of the World Health Summit, an event sponsored by the Gates Foundation in Berlin, Germany.           

The motto of Grand Challenges is “ideas come from everywhere.” The event aims to accelerate the translation of innovation to impact to address the world’s most urgent global health and development problems. What does it mean to you that UTSA and your work were featured on this global stage? 

It was a great honor to see our work featured with other Grand Challenges projects from around the world. We at UTSA are part of the global community, as both scholars and citizens. Each of us gets to decide, for ourselves, how we will wear that latter identity -- global citizen -- and I unabashedly embrace it. I've lived and worked in five countries to date and have had the privilege to visit more than 50. For me, getting started in scientific research as an undergrad, I could never have imagined feeling part of a global project like ending malaria, but if you look around UTSA at the many research projects going on, you’ll start to realize that our reach as a university is indeed global!  

During the event, Chancellor Angela Merkel from Germany gave a speech stressing that “health is a global task” and that “disease doesn’t stop at borders.” How does that make you feel?

Chancellor Merkel gave a strong and very welcome speech at the event supporting global health, and reiterated her commitment to working on problems whose solutions will benefit people everywhere, as did Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway. Lines drawn by humans on maps are meaningless to the pathogens that cause infectious diseases; malaria parasites do not worry about visas or passports. Malaria parasites have always been with us globally and even locally; malaria was only eradicated in the USA after the end of WWII. Malaria parasites and humans have co-evolved together throughout history, and these parasites have exerted quite an influence on the human genome.

You work to eradicate malaria, a disease that is most prevalent outside the U.S. How did you first become interested in the disease?

I became interested in the biology of the liver stage malaria parasite because its development is controlled by both its own genome as well as that of the liver cell that it infects. These parasites cannot develop unless they do so inside another cell, and the interplay between host and parasite that allows liver stage development to occur fascinated me. I really chose the biology of the system, rather than the specific disease. My work has developed a focus on drug discovery in the last six years or so, largely because the initial Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave me seed funding to try to put an idea for a drug screening strategy into practice.

Drug discovery takes a long time. How do you continue to motivate yourself to keep seeking a cure?

The magnitude of the malaria problem and the challenges inherent to translating a great finding from the lab into an actual medicine are both enormous so the big picture of the need for this type of work doesn’t change. Also, I can spend hours just looking at the parasites on a microscope, trying to learn from them and generate new hypotheses based on the phenotypes I see. This is a huge privilege and remains a great pleasure. Teaching is an unsurpassed way to learn, and teaching Parasitology at UTSA has made me acutely aware of the fascinating biology of other single and multicellular eukaryotic parasites; so if some spectacular breakthrough puts my group out of business in terms of malaria research, I would absolutely want to continue applying similar approaches to different parasitic organisms that cause human disease.

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a scientist, though the flavor of scientist I wanted to be was in flux while I was young. I was very much educated by my town's public library, and also initially bounded in my worldview and job choices based on what was on offer. I was set on oceanographer for while (actually, I wanted to go scuba diving and study ocean creatures, but oceanography seemed as close as I could get based on the books I had found), then switched to archaeologist as I was fascinated by the culture and language of ancient Egypt I had read about. I finally stuck with molecular geneticist, guided by a textbook I found in another library as a teenager. I've not ended up precisely there, but I think it would be fair to say that the research I've been involved in to date has kept a molecular understanding of cell biology at its core.

Do you have any science role models? If so why did you choose this person?

No one person, really. Instead, I've been extremely lucky to work with and learn from many exceptional scientists, both peers and mentors, throughout my career. 

Milady Nazir

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