Mukherjee to focus on the genetics of antimalarial drug resistance

Author: Naya Tadavarthy

Angana Mukherjee 200

Molecular parasitologist Angana Mukherjee is excited to work on the genetics of antimalarial drug resistance in her new position as an assistant research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

This semester, Mukherjee, who is also affiliated with the Boler-Parseghian Center for Rare and Neglected Diseases (CRND), is studying how the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum develops resistance to antimalarial drugs. 

However, Mukherjee did not begin her academic career with a focus on malaria. During her doctoral work in molecular parasitology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and also her postdoctoral fellowship at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, she investigated drug resistance mechanisms in another protozoan parasite, leishmania. This parasite, spread by the bite of infected sand flies, causes a range of symptoms from skin sores to internal organ damage.  

But when Mukherjee became a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health, she instead shifted to studying mosquito-transmitted malaria. Mukherjee then worked at Laval University as a research scientist, where she began to examine the genetics and drug resistance of these two parasite systems in tandem. 

The need to address malarial drug resistance is pressing. Malaria causes half a million global deaths a year, especially among children in the world’s poorest countries. Medicine is the only way to combat this disease, but malaria parasites manage to evade the action of the drugs, thereby becoming resistant. Clinical resistance to Artemisinin Combination Therapy (ACT), the frontline and the last resort against this devastating disease, has even emerged in Cambodia and is spreading to Thailand and Myanmar. 

Mukherjee will be working with graduate student Maisha Khair Nima and the International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh to track the spread of this ACT resistance and perform molecular surveillance, in a partnership set up by Kasturi Haldar, Rev. Julius A Nieuwland, C.S.C. Professor of Biological Sciences and Parsons-Quinn Director of the CRND. 

“I’m enthusiastic for the relevance of this collaborative lab work in ND to the field sites in Bangladesh, and I’m really happy that I can give back to the community,” Mukherjee said of this effort. 

Recently, new techniques have accelerated research on malaria biology and drug resistance. 

“To pinpoint the function of a parasitic protein or a pathway in conferring resistance, the gene coding for that protein needs to be validated, and this has been extremely inefficient and time-consuming in the past years,” Mukherjee said. “But now we have multiple advanced techniques in our molecular toolbox to perform genome modification and address what contribution these factors have to mediate or develop drug resistance.” 

Mukherjee feels enthusiastic about joining the scholarly community at Notre Dame, as well. 

“So far I have noticed an amicable and communicative environment within the department and the University,” she said, She especially looks forward to collaborating with Notre Dame’s renowned leaders in genomic and tropical disease research. 

“I have certain expertise that I can contribute and then there is so much that I can also learn from the department,” she explained. “When you have a good community, you’re more excited to do what you love to do.”