Most Americans probably aren’t concerned with contracting malaria because it was eradicated here in the 1950s, with the help of window screens, improved drainage, and insecticides. MmMalaria is a mosquito-borne disease that is caused by Plasmodium spp. parasites, and remains a significant public health challenge in economically developing regions of Asia, Africa, Central America, South America, and close to home, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Sahil Patel, an undergraduate at the University of Miami, is passionate about working to contain the malaria epidemic in countries such as India and Afghanistan. He began doing research in a mMalaria and lLeishmania research lab with Arba Ager, Phd. and Kurt Schesser, Phd., and Merita Aviles, Phd., because he felt a need to combat a sadly overlooked cause of mortality and suffering – “I’m from India and it’s very prevalent there… There are people suffering all over the world that may not be in the spotlight,” Sahil says.
Patel grew up in Boca Raton, which he found to be “not very diverse for Florida.” There were Jewish and Indian people within his circle, but besides that, not much diversity. Coming to Miami was very different,” Sahil says. While attending middle school in Boca, Patel developed an interest in science, which he can trace to dissecting frogs in 7th grade. He was not very enthusiastic about dissecting it at first but with the encouragement and guidance of the teacher, he ultimately enjoyed learning first-hand about the elegant organization of animal anatomy and physiology. This sparked a fascination with science that continues to this day.
As a Microbiology and Immunology major, several upperclassmen in his program advised him to work in Dr. Ager’s and Dr. Schesser’s malaria research lab. He was further intrigued when Dr. Ager came to his Microbiology teaching-lab and lectured about malaria, and other parasites, and about as well as the lab’s mosquito breeding colony. Patel began working in the lab under the direction of Ricardo Garcia, who became his mentor. Garcia is in charge of day-to-day procedures, and works closely with Patel to help him gain a clear understanding of the often technically challenging procedures, as well as the broader impact of the work.
In the lab, Patel works directly with mice, inoculating them via an IP injection, and treating the mice with antimalarial drugs via oral gavage. The IP, or intra-peritoneal method involves injecting a needle into the abdomen of the mouse. The oral gavage method consists of putting a blunt tipped needle down the mouse’s throat to successfully administer the drugs. Patel said that the first few times were difficult, but he was ultimately able to conquer his fear of handling and injecting the mice.
The lab’s research is primarily focused on novel drug discovery. Malaria develops resistance to any single drug within an average of 5 years due to its high mutation rate in conjunction with socioeconomic factors endemic to regions with high rates of mMalaria. Malaria has a complex life cycle; which needs an infected host (humans), and is transmitted from the bite of the vector, (an infected female Anopheles mosquito). Within the mosquito, during the sexual phase of this parasite, a male and female gamete combine to form a genetically variable egg. This process leads to great genetic diversity in parasite populations as well as high mutation rate. The socioeconomic factors that lead to the spread of resistance range from poor drug quality and access to drug, to noncompliance in following the full duration of the drug regimen. Because of this, researchers are now focusing on developing drug combination therapies to combat the resistance the parasite gains to singular drug approaches.
Patel describes a successful research experience as “Coming out knowing more than when you came in. With research, it’s different than schoolwork. You can read a powerpoint slide all you want and do all the practice problems in the book, but, in lab, you have to learn hands on, looking at and interpreting slides and doing things you wouldn’t normally do in a class. You get a practical understanding of how things work.”
Dr. AgerPatel’s research lab has been working with JPC-3210, an aminomethylphenol that has shown significant efficacy against the parasite when used in combination with other drugs. This is a big finding, and it is the third efficacious drug to be extensively studied at the pre-clinical level in the lab. The first 2 drugs, (Lariam® and Halfanm®), have been approved and are used today to treat malaria cases. Dr. AgerPatel’s lab is currently studying the effects of the compound on Plasmodium berghei, a rodent malaria strain, but also genetically close to that of human malaria. The next step will be to test the drug on humans.
Working in the lab has given Patel exposure to medical research which he believes will be very helpful in his future endeavors. Patel plans to attend medical school with the hope of becoming a surgeon, so the experience he is gaining will ultimately be a valuable tool in his future. “Obviously a mouse is much different than a human, but some of the procedures and tools are similar to what I will encounter as a surgeon.” He is currently undecided about what type of surgery he’ll specialize in, but he would like to obtain an MBA before going to medical school. His family owns several franchises in Florida and Texas, and he would also like to one day partner with his father in the business. Patel hopes that the MBA will provide him with the skills needed to manage his family business, as well as, possibly, a medical practice.
Patel’s advice to other undergraduates is to not be afraid to reach out for research opportunities. “In the beginning, I was scared to contact professors and scientists, but the worst thing they can do is say is no. Be proactive in trying to find research you’re interested in. Utilize the undergraduate research application. Find something you’re passionate about. Working in a lab is going to be about 4-8 hours per week, so you’ll want to choose something you like,” Sahil says. Patel encourages others to find research that they enjoy, because they will get more out of the experience. He believes that research is a very important and fulfilling part of undergraduate studies, regardless of your major or academic track.