Explore the pioneering work of Abdoulaye Diabaté, a leading figure in medical entomology and parasitology. As Head of Medical Entomology and Parasitology at Burkina Faso’s Research Institute in Health Sciences, Diabaté’s research offers hope for malaria control utilizing gene drive mosquitoes. Learn about his efforts to break walls against malaria and within scientific research. Dive into his journey from personal experiences with malaria to leading genetic solutions and African leadership in malaria eradication.
Which wall does your research break?
My research is breaking a number of walls:
The first wall that needs breaking is eradicating malaria. Today, malaria – a preventable and treatable disease – still kills a child every minute. Over 600,000 people die of malaria every year, the vast majority being African children and pregnant women. Malaria also incapacitates entire countries and economies with over 200 million infected every year. While great progress was achieved in the last 20 years, thanks to the use of insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor spraying and antimalaria drugs; the situation has been worsening lately with cases and deaths going up again. Malaria has affected every aspect of my personal life: from nearly dying of the disease as a toddler, to taking care of my loved ones every time they get sick. I have therefore decided to dedicate my life to fighting this disease that stifles the development of Africa and breaks the future of millions of African lives.
The second wall that I wish to break is centering research on African problems in Africa. What I mean by that is that African researchers are best placed to be the ones designing and conducting research on issues affecting African countries. Malaria is the perfect example of this. Many European or North American institutions have malaria research facilities although malaria was eradicated from these regions a long time ago. I believe that malaria research must be taking place in malaria-endemic countries. Burkina Faso is committed to providing an enabling environment for such research and I hope many other African countries will position themselves as leaders in malaria research. In my position, I hope to inspire the new generation of young African researchers to take on careers in STEM and more specifically in malaria research.
The third wall that needs breaking is the separation between research and society. I strongly believe that stakeholder engagement is a key pillar of any research project to make sure that the public is involved in the research process and contributes to research design, implementation and outcomes. At Target Malaria, I have partnered with my social sciences colleague to build a strong stakeholder engagement team to work alongside our field entomology, insectary, molecular biology, GIS and modeling teams. The stakeholder engagement team is made up of social scientists, communications experts and stakeholder engagement practitioners who are responsible for engaging with stakeholders at all levels from the communities where we work, from district authorities to national government officials and civil society representatives to international stakeholders. For these activities, we listen to stakeholders and hear their questions and areas of interest or concerns. Based on this learning, we develop and use a number of communications tools that are adapted for each audience to best share information about every aspect of the project, as well as share information on malaria and prevention methods.
What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?
In my country, Burkina Faso, malaria rages every rainy season. In 2021, there were an estimated 8.3 million cases of malaria, that’s 37% of the whole population. Each and every one of us is at risk of getting infected. There were also 18,900 deaths, that’s 15% of all deaths. Malaria is one of the primary causes of consultations and hospital admissions. Malaria is part of our everyday lives and rages havoc in our homes
As a kid, I suffered from many malaria episodes, but there is one that I will never forget. It happened when I was little, 3 or 4 years old. I can still clearly see myself lying down on the bed with a high fever and my whole body aching. At that age, it was difficult for a child to understand what it meant to lose someone forever, but I was big enough to know what it meant to love someone. I loved my parents and in their eyes, I could see that they loved me but that they were panicked with fear. They would try to reassure me all the time by smiling, but their smiles were wrong. Wrong because they were powerless and desperate.
Will survive, will not.
The psychological trauma my parents went through was unbearable.
I am here today because of nurses, physicians, scientists and international donors. To all of them, I am grateful. They all inspired me to do the same and devote my life to fighting malaria.
In what ways does society benefit from your research?
Malaria is predominantly a rural disease, which has remained most entrenched in African countries with populations spread over large areas and often with less well-developed transport and public health infrastructures. The complexity and cost of carrying out repeat interventions (such as spraying and bednet distributions), combined with issues of growing resistance to insecticide and anti-malarial drugs, are threatening to reverse progress on malaria elimination.
The research I am involved in has the potential to be a breakthrough technology to complement existing and new malaria control tools and maybe eradicate the disease.
Target Malaria is a not-for-profit research consortium that aims to develop and share new, cost-effective and sustainable genetic technologies to modify mosquitoes and reduce malaria transmission. Our vision is to contribute to a world free of malaria. We aim to achieve excellence in all areas of our work, creating a path for responsible research and development of genetic technologies, such as gene drive.
Gene drive is a genetic phenomenon that occurs in nature that biases inheritance. It causes a selected trait to spread rapidly through a species via sexual reproduction over several generations. Gene drive works by increasing the likelihood that a modified gene will be inherited by its offspring. Normally, genes have a 50/50 chance of being inherited, but gene drive systems could increase that chance to upwards of 99 percent. This means that over the course of several generations, a selected trait could become increasingly common within a specific species.
Gene drive approaches, by their self-sustaining nature, could – in conjunction with existing tools – offer long-term, sustainable and cost-effective methods to control Anopheles mosquito populations, the vectors of malaria in Africa.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?
My hope is to develop an effective and safe strain of gene drive mosquitoes that can be used in Africa with other vector control tools to dramatically decrease transmission rates and ultimately to reduce malaria cases and deaths on the continent.
My hope is to train a new generation of African scientists to take on this research and be the generation that will draw the line against malaria.