COURTESY GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY Paul Roepe, a Georgetown professor of chemistry, has been awarded a $4.75 million five-year grant to conduct cutting-edge malaria research.
Paul Roepe, a Georgetown professor of chemistry, has been awarded a $4.75 million five-year grant to conduct cutting-edge malaria research.

The National Institutes of Health awarded Paul Roepe, a professor of chemistry at Georgetown, a $4.75 million five-year grant to conduct research in combination therapy to combat drug-resistant strains of malaria on March 6.

Principle investigator for the grant and co-founder of the Georgetown University Medical Center’s Center for Infectious Disease, Roepe will work with fellow researcher Craig Thomas of the National Center for Advancing Translational Services, a division of the NIH that stresses the use of lab and clinical observation to enhance the development of effective medicine.

Promoting collaboration between Georgetown, the NIH and NCATS, the project will work out of Georgetown, two labs at Johns Hopkins University and two labs of the NIH.

Although cures for malaria exist, resistance to antimalarial drugs has posed a threat to antimalarial treatments since the 1970s. Roepe’s project uses a more focused form of combination therapy to discover the optimum drug combination that can be used to overcome the problem of multidrug resistance.

“Prior to this project, the drugs chosen for combination therapy for malaria had been chosen ad hoc and arbitrarily,” Roepe said.

Roepe’s team aims to find the ideal combinations from thousands of malarial drugs to not only treat malaria’s most lethal strain, plasmodium falciparum, but also to treat the other four strains of malaria. According to Craig, the advanced technology offered by NCATS, including the robotically enabled platform that allows for the analysis of over 3,000 combinations of drugs, will allow the research to be conducted in a more time-efficient manner.

“The NCATS drug screening platform allows for the rapid testing of drug combinations,” Craig said. “This effort would have taken several decades if done using traditional technologies.”

Potential NIH grantees are required to write up a proposal before entering into a rigorous 10-month review period of the applications by several different committees. Although unable to reveal precise selectivity numbers, NIH Programs Officer for Pre-Clinical Parasite Drug Development John Rogers stressed the process’ high level of selectivity.

“What I can say is, it’s very competitive,” Rogers said.

This is not the first time that Roepe has researched drug-resistant malaria at the university. In November, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky, respectively, Roepe published an article in the science journal PLOS ONE that revealed the results of a study linking autophagy to drug resistance in parasites.

“By coupling the outcomes of these screens with experts in the disease like Professor Roepe, we can investigate novel drugs and drug combinations in more detail. The NCATS team is delighted to take part in this multi-institutional effort working with renowned malaria experts like Professor Roepe.” Thomas said.

Roepe praised Georgetown’s science program as a continually positive resource for him in his scientific research.

“One of the reasons that I moved to Georgetown from Cornell was to be able to begin in-depth malarial research with both the biology and the chemistry lab. The laboratory here is unusual because I have a co-appointment between the Biomedical Center [in the GUMC] and chemistry lab on the main campus,” Roepe said.

Roepe attributed some of his success at Georgetown to the collaborative nature of Georgetown’s biology and chemistry labs.

“It is an uncommon phenomenon for a biology and chemistry lab to be working in tangent with one another. I believe that the success that we are having with these projects is due to the fact that Georgetown allows the sciences to be integrative, cross-campus, and interdisciplinary,” he said.

The interdisciplinary nature of the biology and chemistry labs has been markedly crucial to Roepe’s work in malaria.

“Malaria is a vast issue caused by many different factors. The only way to solve the problem is through an interdisciplinary approach. If one was able to use only one discipline, such as chemistry, then the problem of malaria would have been solved prior to this present moment,” Roepe said.

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