Rob Moon's Story
Rob Moon travelled to Malaysia in 2011 on the trail of a monkey malaria parasite known to be a significant cause of disease in humans throughout South East Asia.
Malaria remains a major global health issue, with around 200 million cases per year resulting in more than 400,000 deaths. Malaria is normally spread between humans, via mosquito bites, but over the last decade cases of people infected with a malaria parasite carried by monkeys in South East Asia have increased. This parasite, known as P. knowlesi, is now the dominant cause of malaria in Malaysia and can cause severe disease and death in some cases. Despite this, difficulty in growing this parasite in the lab meant that, in 2011, few people had studied it.
At the time of his Fellowship, Rob worked as a postdoctoral research scientist at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research (now the Francis Crick Institute), studying how malaria parasites can invade human cells using a range of molecular techniques. During his travels, Rob joined teams from the Institute for Medical Research in Malaysia, to learn more about P. knowlesi in the field and to develop new techniques to study it more easily in the lab.
While with the Institute for Medical Research team, Rob took part in field work in Sabah, Borneo, where they screened villagers living in transmission areas to identify and treat malaria infections, and in mosquito surveillance work in an Orang Asli (aboriginal) village, which involved catching mosquitoes (using yourself as bait!) and trekking along rainforest river courses to identify mosquito breeding sites.
The Fellowship provided critical insight into the realities of working on malaria in the field and helped establish key collaborations with researchers working in the region. After returning to the UK, Rob continued his work on P. knowlesi which culminated in establishing the first human cell adapted culture system for the parasite. This work, published in 2013, meant P. knowlesi could be grown in culture with human red blood cells for the first time, thus enabling researchers to easily study it in the lab.
Rob has published more than 13 research articles in high-impact international journals since his Fellowship, including as lead author on two papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. He has presented at over 22 conferences/institutions around the world and received an award for excellence in molecular, cellular and immunoparasitology from the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
In 2015, Rob was awarded a prestigious Career Development Award Fellowship by the UK Medical Research Council and Department for International Development, to establish his own independent research group as an Assistant Professor at the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This funded a five-year project to continue his work on P. knowlesi and to unravel how the parasite gets inside red blood cells. Most recently Rob has published work identifying a key parasite protein which enables P. knowlesi to infect humans, which potentially could be exploited to develop a vaccine.
Rob has returned to Malaysia three times both to work and to visit friends he made during his Fellowship and consequently maintains strong links and collaborations with several Institutes in both Malaysia and Singapore.
Read Rob's report here