Laura, malaria research scientist in a lab

Why I #fightmalaria: Laura's story

There are two roles I play in life: scientist and mum. My daughter – who was two months old when I joined GSK – is now 14. Both roles mean that when it comes to researching malaria, I can empathise with mums who are affected by this dreadful disease.

In sub-Saharan Africa – where malaria is most prevalent – it can be miles to the nearest healthcare facility. It’s important that we understand how people use malaria medicines. If a child is getting better after the first day of treatment, will the mother save the rest of the medication for when another child gets sick? That would be understandable, given the long journey to the clinic. But it could have repercussions for increasing resistance to malaria medicines. Understanding the answers to those kinds of questions could help us develop malaria medicines in a way that recognises how they are used in real life.

Initially, I trained in biochemistry and molecular biology. After doing some work with GSK Spain on cancer and inflammation, I got the opportunity to join the company’s malaria research unit, based at our R&D facility in Tres Cantos, Spain – a site dedicated to tackling diseases of the developing world. I felt it would be a real challenge to work on malaria and that my skills in cell biology offered me an exciting opportunity to contribute to malaria biology and drug discovery. 

Now, my team gets to see almost all of the medicines that are in development across the global malaria community because our technology gives researchers a chance to determine their compound’s potential to kill the malaria parasite quickly.

One of the highlights has been my involvement in a group that pioneered GSK’s approach to sharing our data on malaria. We made publically available the results of GSK screening its entire library of two million compounds against malaria. This exercise indicated whether they could potentially offer a medicine to tackle the disease. Being more open with data is stimulating collaborative research into infectious and neglected diseases, which are notoriously complex areas of research.

Here at Tres Cantos we’ve created an ‘open lab’. We invite external scientists to work alongside GSK scientists on their own projects, focusing on diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries. We’re also involved in collaborations with expert organisations such as the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

For me, it’s important to help fight malaria by driving research into this disease. Although significant progress has been made against malaria – through better access to diagnosis, prevention and treatment – the disease still claims almost half a million lives a year, many of them young children and pregnant women in Africa. By working to better understand the biology of malaria and ways to stop the parasite in its tracks, we can hopefully stay one step ahead of the disease.

In the malaria research unit, we are carrying out innovative research focused on the very earliest stages of discovery and have potential medicines that are moving into clinical development – which would bring us closer to the patient while hopefully contributing to the final goal of defeating malaria.