Monica Diez-Silva is an MIT post-doctoral fellow who is working with partners across the world to find a cure for malaria.
“Two million people die of this disease each year,” she says. “If we can develop a vaccine, it will be so useful to humanity.”
Diez-Silva participates in GEM4, a global collaboration among 10 leading institutions in North America, Europe, and Asia, who work together across the boundaries of science, engineering, technology, medicine, and public health. The goal of this innovative partnership is to bring together engineers, biologists, and clinicians with shared facilities and joint students to solve problems of human health and disease, problems requiring the latest tools in cell and molecular biomechanics, biology, and medicine.
The project is the brainchild of Prof. Subra Suresh, who launched GEM4 in 2005. A key strength of the project, he says, is education combined with research.
“By involving experts across disciplines — for example, making engineers aware of critical issues in biomedicine and making medical doctors aware of the capabilities of an engineer — it is possible to apply the knowledge to problems crying to be solved. It is this cross-disciplinary research that makes it much more likely to find solutions for difficult diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, the avian flu, cancer, and AIDS.”
Diez-Silva is now using the latest genetic manipulation techniques to knock out specific genes from the parasite to stem the disease. It is work done in collaboration with the National University of Singapore, Institut Pasteur in Paris, Harvard School of Public Health, and MIT.
“My background is in biology. But now I am working with mechanical engineers, physicists, microbiologists, and immunologists, and it’s fascinating,” she says. “Working with others, you can integrate the techniques and knowledge of each specialist in each field in each country, and you can make progress much faster. To get where you’re going on your own would take years longer.”
International collaboration requires a lot of effort, says Diez-Silva, who often communicates with others in English, her third language. “It is not easy to collaborate, but the rewards can lead to significant progress in the fight against malaria.” Suresh adds: “No one institution or individual — even with all the resources we have — has enough of a bandwidth to capture all aspects of these major issues. We don’t know how fast a cure for these diseases will come — two years, five years, 10 years, or 50 years — but working together the chances are much higher for progress.”