December 4, 2009

Miranda Teboh-Ewungkem Turns Mathematical Lens on Malaria Prevention

She is supervising Miao Wang ’12 in research funded by the Lindback Foundation

When Miranda I. Teboh-Ewungkem, assistant professor of mathematics, looks around, she sees mathematics everywhere. By using math to model the developmental stages of the parasite that causes malaria, she hopes to provide new control strategies against the disease.

“The idea of transforming a biological or physical problem into a mathematical problem that one can analyze and discuss using mathematical tools is just beautiful,” says Teboh-Ewungkem, who received a Lindback Foundation Career Enhancement Minority Junior Faculty Grant to assist with the research. “We are surrounded by mathematics. We just need to look hard and find it, and mathematical biology makes that possible by connecting biology and mathematics.”

Teboh-Ewungkem first began using math to study malaria for her master’s thesis at University of Buea in Cameroon. After joining the Lafayette faculty in 2004, she says the time was right to re-visit the research. If the project, entitled “Mathematical modeling of the within-vector dynamics of plasmodium falciparum parasite with mixed strains and possible vaccine therapy,” is successful, it could aid vaccine developers in blocking disease transmission and designing more effective control strategies.

The parasite that causes malaria completes three different developmental stages of its life cycle in both a human and a mosquito. The process begins when a mosquito releases salivary gland sporozoites, which are the transmissible form of the parasite, into a human during a blood meal. The sporozoites multiply in the human host, leading to sexual forms of the parasite, which exist in an arrested state until a mosquito ingests them by feeding on the human. Fertilization occurs inside the mosquito, and the resulting zygotes undergo various developmental stages ending with the release of sporozoites into the mosquito’s salivary glands, which can then be transmitted to a human.

Mosquitoes feed on different individuals with different strains of the parasite leading to the possibility of mixed strains of the transmissible form of the parasite. These mixed strains have dangerous characteristics, like drug resistance, that can be passed to humans.

The Lindback grant has allowed Teboh-Ewungkem to bring mathematics-economics major Miao Wang ’12 (Cheng De He Bei, China) in to assist with her research. Their goal is to modify a previous mathematical model she developed with EXCEL Scholar Nathaniel Newman ’09 and Tom Yuster, associate professor of mathematics, that only studied a single strain to include multiple strains.

Wang will be involved in every aspect of the modeling process from helping to build the model to solving and analyzing equations and writing and running Mathematica codes needed to test it. He also will help analyze the model and explain its function.

Teboh-Ewungkem recently used a National Science Foundation grant to organize an international workshop at the University of Buea that brought together faculty members from colleges and universities in Africa, the United States, and Europe in order to use mathematics to study malaria, AIDS, and other issues. She has presented at conferences and workshops in the U.S. and abroad and has published numerous articles in the field of mathematical biology.

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