Episode 71: The Relationship Between Malaria and Cancer with Dr Faith Uwadiae

In this episode, listen to Dr Bahijja talk with Dr Faith Uwadiae, a post-doctorate from the famous Francis Crick Institute, regarding her research into the relationship between malaria and cancer, including Burkitt’s Lymphoma, as well as other aspects of her work and research.

Photo of mosquito by Wolfgang Hasselmann.

Dr Bahijja: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Dr Faith: I’m Faith and I am actually a post-doctoral scientist at the Francis Crick Institute. I work within the field of immunology and study how our immune system not only protects us, but how it can also promote disease. I am a Londoner and have lived here almost my entire life. I have a ton of hobbies and right now I am really enjoying cycling! I also enjoy baking, home brewing beer, crochet, and many other hobbies!

Dr Bahijja: What is your favourite song at the moment?

Dr Faith: My favourite song at the moment is Fast Car by Tracy Chapman. I really enjoy the message — its about hope and resiliance. Even though it came up before I was born, I am really enjoying it.

Dr Bahijja: What is an immunologist and what is your favourite part of being an immunologist?

Dr Faith: An immunologist is a scientist who researches the immune system. We are trying to understand not only how the immune system functions, but also what goes wrong, such as in immune deficiency or autoimmunity. The idea is that by understanding how these immune cells function, we can better understand how certain diseases arise and potentially how we can address the cause to treat them. I really enjoy the mystery and complexity of the immune system. One thing you often hear from non-immunologists is “I hate immunology”, “It’s so complicated”, etc. but I think there is something about the complexity and trying to figure it out, that I love and find so interesting. The idea of finding something new, that could potentially help others is so exciting!

Dr Bahijja: Within your research, you focus on both Malaria and cancer? Would you be able to explain a little bit about what Malaria is and why it is so important to address?

Dr Faith: Malaria is very interesting — it is essentially a tropical disease that affects many people across the world, over 229 million people. The disease is actually caused by a parasite that lives in Mosquitoes, from the Plasmodium family. If you end up being bitten by a mosquito carrying the parasite, it sets off a chain of events leading to Malaria, the disease. It can cause fever, chills, nausea, etc. The parasite has multiple stages of development, starting off in the liver and then it goes on to infect our red blood cells — at which point many of the symptoms start to appear. Its a life threatening and very devastating disease, especially as it effects so many young children. It takes such a long time for the immune system to develop a proper response to Malaria, so that is why it can have such a devastating impact on children.

Life Cycle of Malaria Parasite — Courtesy of the CDC.

Did you know that Malaria used to be endemic in Europe and the UK? While many people often forget, there were local cases of Malaria in the EU as recent as in 1975. Some scientists have voiced concerns that climate change could result in a re-emergence of Malaria in the EU in the future.

Dr Bahijja: Similarly, could you also explain a little bit about what lymphoma is and specifically Burkitt’s Lymphoma?

Dr Faith: Burkitt’s Lymphoma is actually a cancer of the lymphocytes, with lymphocytes being white blood cells within the immune system. These cells include T-cells or B-cells, with T-cells being important for our immunological memory and B-cells being important for the creation of antibodies in our blood. Burkitt’s Lymphoma is an aggressive cancer of the B-cells, resulting in excessive growth.

Did you know? B-cells and T-cells have very similar cell surface receptors, respectively called BCRs and TCRs. B-cells are also capable of producing soluble B-cell receptors from specialised B-cells called Plasma Cells. These soluble receptors are more commonly called antibodies. These are an essential component of our adaptive immunological response, that we develop after being exposed to pathogens or similar foreign material, like allergens.

Dr Bahijja: A large part of your research is looking into how BL is associated with Malaria — I’ve also seen online that endemic Burkitt’s Lymphoma is associated with another pathogen called Epstein-Barr Virus? How is it that a parasite like Malaria or other pathogens could cause cancer?

Dr Faith: For over 50 years, people have known that in some parts of the world, in areas where there is Plasmodium Falciparum (one of several parasites that can result in Malaria) there is also high incidence of Burkitt’s Lymphoma. Generally, eradication of this specific parasite also can result in a strong drop in the rate of Burkitt’s Lymphoma.

It’s important to note — when you get an infection like Malaria, it doesn’t immediately cause a cancer like Burkitt’s Lymphoma. Its not a guarantee, but it does increase the risk. Cancer is really a genetic disease, caused by genetic errors, and infection can merely just increase the risk of those errors taking place. So in my research, I have been looking into what genetic changes are actually taking place with Malaria that could result in Burkitt’s Lymphoma within the B-cells, as well as how the parasite can actually increase the chances of such changes or induce them.

We are also investigating links to another pathogen, called Epstein-Barr Virus. This virus is fairly well known, although people may not know the formal name, as it causes “Mono” or mononucleosis — sometimes called “kissing disease”. The complex mix of these two infectious agents are what really drive the risk behind that increased risk of Burkitt’s Lymphoma.

Image of the Epstein-Barr infected cells courtesy of Liza Gross (2005), “Virus Proteins Prevent Cell Suicide Long Enough to Establish Latent Infection”.

Dr Bahijja: In an interview with the Francis Crick institute you mentioned that your background was very important to the motivation behind your research into Malaria — could you tell the audience a bit about that and how it connects with your work?

Dr Faith: Yeah, for me I think Malaria is one of those things — My family is from Nigeria and when you are from Nigeria, Malaria is just one of those things you always hear about. People talk about it back home, you might know people having to take anti-malarials when they go back home, [these sort of things]. The point was always made that it was very important not to get this disease. I didn’t even know the true extent of the burden of Malaria in Nigeria until I saw some WHO stats, with 1/4 of the world’s Malaria burden found in Nigeria. Given that familial connection and knowing the burden in Nigeria, I think its impossible not to have that connection. It’s motivating to know your science will not only benefit the world in general, but also where you and your family are from — having that direct impact.

Dr Bahijja: Prior to working in Malaria research I understand you worked in asthma?

Dr Faith: I actually did my PhD in asthma. Asthma is a very common disease — most of us know someone that has asthma. However, the type of asthma I was specifically researching was allergic asthma. It essentially results from an incorrect or excessive immune response when your body comes into contact with a harmless stimuli, such as plant pollen or dust. Constant exposure to such stimuli, such as from dusty pillows or pet dander, can cause allergic asthma in some individuals. Many people aren’t aware however, that this is a misdirected immune response, [as the pollen or dust is not actually harmful to the body, the body has just incorrectly labelled the stimuli as harmful]. It’s similar to an immune resposne that might be normally put up against a parasite, such as a helminth (Note: Helminths are parasitic worms), indicating that something might be going wrong.

My PhD looked at a specific cell type involved in this asthma, called T-helper cells. These are also a type of lymphocyte and it plays an important tole in antibody production, along with B-cells. One of the major aspects of allergic asthma is the production of the wrong type of antibody, IgE, against this harmless stimuli — so I was looking into what kind of role this T-cell played in that response. I used many mouse models of allergic disease and was able to identify that this called was found in many immunological organs, such as the spleen, but also in the lungs (the main site of inflammation in allergic asthma). We found that it didn’t only promote this response, but also seemed to regulate antibody production to provide some protection. So this cell a bit of a double-edged sword. This cell also has some implications within Malaria, and is involved in some ways with Burkitt’s Lymphoma and the germinal centre response. […]

Dr Bahijja: How has it been doing research in the lab during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Image of lab materials by Hans Reniers.

Dr Faith: It was actually quite crazy, as I self-isolated prior to the lockdown in March of 2020, so when I ended up getting outside of self-isolation everyone outside was wearing masks during the national lockdown. It was quite stressful, as we had to shutdown a lot of our experiments due to the lockdown. Later on, I was actually doing some work in the lab with tumours — for the first time. Usually you would get some help and advice, but I ended up having to work with the tumours and figure it out all on my own. The tumours specifically are related to the cancer in my research, as I exposure mice to the parasite and then examine what changes occur and how long it occurs before the cancer develops. Overall, its been a very turbulent time to be a scientist.

Dr Bahijja: I saw on social media that you are part of an initiative to fight COVID-19 misinformation, especially around the anti-vax movement and vaccine information. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Dr Faith: It’s quite interesting how I got involved. At the time, the vaccines had just come out in November and many people were excited at the prospect of returning to normality. However, there was also a massive amount of misinformation and a lot of people very uncertain about taking the vaccine. I got an email from Team Halo in December, and they asked me to get involved in this project on TikTok. We had a conversation and they are a massive global initiative with scientists from all over the world. We create short videos on TikTok to create short videos to help inform people about vaccines with correct information, so they can make the correct decision with themselves. Misinformation spreads fast, but so do our videos — but ours have the correct and accurate information, so that people can actually be informed about vaccines without all of the misinformation being spread. […]

Dr Bahijja: Could you give a few take-home messages for the audience?

Dr Faith: In terms of research, I would just say to keep funding science. Especially right now with the pandemic, its just so important to value science and research — and that means funding. Not to get political, but the government has just laid massive cuts to scientific funding and that has a huge impact on research. We need to think about the bigger picture.

The other thing, is thinking about Black Lives Matter and the movements from the past few years, and thinking about how we can promote inclusion within STEM. Whether that be lobbying and thinking about what you can do within your own organisation, or otherwise.

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An engaging podcast bringing you the latest research in Science, Technology and Health.Hosted by award winning scientist Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham.