Parasite insights: the award-winning scientist teaching the world about deadly diseases

Alex Maier is an expert on parasites
Alex Maier is an expert on parasites

They may be small, but parasites can cause large-scale damage. Award-winning researcher and teacher Professor Alexander Maier wants to change that.

Elaine Obran

ANU Reporter Senior Writer

When it comes to parasites and their reputation in the animal kingdom, it largely, well, sucks (literally).

Small, abundant and appearing in places we least expect, the narrative surrounding these mysterious creatures is long, tangled and, at times, bordering on imagery not too dissimilar from Count Dracula.

While many of us spend our lives not only trying to avoid parasites but putting their existence out of our minds, Professor Alexander Maier, from the Research School Biology and Division of Biomedical Science and Biochemistry at The Australian National University (ANU), does the opposite.

His research is focused on understanding the basic biology of malaria parasites and how this can unlock better treatments for deadly diseases.

Often daring to ask big questions (despite his small test subjects), Maier’s work has not only made significant advances in his field but also earned him the prestigious Australian Award for University Teaching.

Maier says it’s in his quest for answers that he and his team can tap into solutions for disease.

"We try to understand how the parasite actually causes disease and what the parasite needs to survive in the human body," Maier says.

"No matter how fundamental our research is, there’s always in the back of our minds - can we exploit this kind of mechanism we have discovered? How can we interfere with it? Does that influence a drug regime or policy?

"There is this constant jump from molecular to society and society back to molecular."

Unlike the speed at which a mosquito can zip around a room and leave its itchy stamp without a trace, malaria progress can appear frustratingly slow. But Maier argues that is far from the case.

"It looks like we are treading water and not making any headway, and that is not true," Maier says.

"Over the last 20 years, we have reduced the number of malaria deaths by one third. This is not bad progress in the fight against a disease that plagued humankind for millenia."

"But still, it’s a huge problem. Malaria still kills hundreds of thousands of people each year."

Part of this difficulty lies in the nature of parasites themselves. Both smart, resistant and adaptable, Maier says finding long-term solutions is very difficult.

"The problem for researchers and health professionals is growing drug resistance.

"Very often, we have effective drugs, but the parasites are smart. And they continuously find ways to circumvent the action of drugs and become resistant.

"They are like a fine-tuned Formula One car. They’re so good at what they are doing, finding hosts and infecting them. And then, of course, spreading and getting to the next host."

Even though drugs targeting malaria are accelerating ahead of the parasites themselves, Maier explains that any complacency surrounding disease could be devasting.

"Parasites are a global problem; therefore, you need global solutions," Maier says.

"We’re making good progress and have drugs against a lot of the parasites - especially in the veterinary field. The problem is that several of them are ’wonder drugs’: they are very effective, well tolerated and relatively cheap to produce. But we rely on them too heavily and have stopped researching for alternatives.

"If drug resistance suddenly develops against one of those wonder drugs, it means that all’of a sudden millions of people or animals are vulnerable again - with no cure at hand."

As someone at the forefront of malaria research, it comes as no surprise that Maier has his finger on the pulse of new disease interventions.

"We are not only looking at the mechanisms that make people sick, but also at conditions that allow the malaria parasite to spread from humans to mosquitoes.

"However, in order to survive in the mosquito, the parasite has to develop into sexual forms.

"Only parasites that have fully developed into male and female forms can survive in the mosquito’s gut after they are taken up from a malaria patient. That is a vulnerability for the parasite. Because if that differentiation does not happen, it’s a dead end.

"It’s still devastating for the patient with malaria, but the disease cannot be transmitted to someone else. That would be the end of the cycle, so if we can intervene in the sexual differentiation process, we are breaking that curse of the malaria disease."

It may be seen as a mosquito-sized step forward, but Maier says it all plays a much larger role in the fight against parasitic disease - and that’s what makes his work so rewarding.

"It’s such a big problem, and even though every day it only feels like you are taking baby steps, when you look back, it’s fascinating to see how far you have come and what you can discover and also what impact you can have to the field."

Passing this knowledge onto his students and guiding them through the field of STEM plays another important role in Maier’s work at ANU.

"Each student has their own ambition and their own talents," Maier says.

"And it’s my job to try to find out what drives those students and try to bring out the best of them so that they can contribute to the problem that those parasitic diseases actually represent."

A harmonious, symbiotic relationship if you will - that could teach parasites a thing or two.

Professor Maier has been recognised with the 2023 Australian Awards for Teaching Excellence in the category for science.