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Malaria-Fighting Biochemist Paul Sigala Named Pew Scholar

Jun 14, 2018
Pew Sigala

Paul Sigala, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry at University of Utah Health, was named a 2018 Pew Scholar for his lab's interdisciplinary approach to developing novel methods for combatting malaria, one of the most common infectious diseases and a public health threat worldwide.

Sigala is one of 22 scientists nationwide to receive the highly competitive honor from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides a four-year grant to early career investigators of outstanding promise in science that is relevant to the advancement of human health.

"Dr. Sigala's work has the potential to change how we treat malaria, but it also offers new therapeutic approaches for other parasitic infections," said Chris Hill, Ph.D., co-chair of the Biochemistry Department at U of U Health. "This award will allow him to continue to grow as one of the leading scientists of his generation."

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that produces fever, chills and severe flu-like symptoms as the parasiteinvades red blood cells. If left untreated, a person may develop severe complications and die. In 2016, more than 215 million people were diagnosed with malaria, of which more than 440,000 died. In the United States, doctors diagnose more than 1,500 cases of malaria every year.

Sigala first became interested in malaria while teaching high school chemistry in Ghana while a Peace Corps volunteer. He saw the devastation of the disease and decided to focus his interest in science on a problem with substantial global and biomedical relevance.

His current research focuses on exploring the metabolic pathways and functions that allow Plasmodium falciparum, the most virulent parasite responsible for malaria, to survive in human red blood cells. By exploiting the parasite's biology, he hopes to develop new therapeutic strategies.

His lab is exploring two unique mechanisms to tackle the life-threatening scourge. Similar to plants, P. falciparum contains a vacuole, a chloroplast-like organelle that that houses key metabolic pathways. Within this organelle, the parasite synthesizes carotenoids, a yellow pigment. Sigala's team is targeting these pathways to develop new ways to kill the parasite before it spreads.

In another approach, the team is leveraging dormant enzymes in human red blood cells that remain from earlier red cell development. The team first stimulates these enzymes to resume activity and then administers a second compound like luminol, commonly used by law enforcement to find hidden blood trace evidence, to produce light within the cell. The light generates reactive oxygen species that are toxic to the parasite. Listen to The Scope interview here.

Watch a video of a red blood cell infected by a parasite here.

"Dr. Sigala is developing new approaches to tackle malaria by side-stepping typical drug therapies and finding new pathways to kill the invading parasite," said Hill. "His detailed enzymology and inhibitor development offer innovative approaches for combating a disease that has plagued humans for thousands of years."

While Sigala's research is in the early stages, he is hopeful that one or both approaches could be used as part of a combination therapy with medications already on the market to treat the hundreds of thousands of people who are vulnerable to this disease.

"This is a tremendous honor for me, the lab and our research," Sigala said. "I am proud to be part of a tradition at the U of individuals selected as Pew scholars or with similar awards that recognize the incredible science conducted here."

Sigala is looking forward to joining the community of research scientists at the annual Pew Scholars meeting to explore new research opportunities. "It is the interactions between researchers from different fields that sparks collaboration and insights that can transform research," he said.

Sigala credits the talented, dedicated researchers in his lab for the continued advances of these projects.