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Biochemist Works to End Malarial Drug Resistance

Paul Roepe

June 10, 2009 - Between 300 and 500 million people worldwide become infected with malaria each year. Of this number, more than 1 million die due to drug-resistant strains of the disease. But with continued funding in this field, Roepe believes researchers will soon find the answers to stop these deaths.

“There just aren’t enough people standing up for the research funding needed to fight it,” says Roepe, who is chair of the chemistry department and co-director of the Center for Infectious Disease at Georgetown.

Pinpointing the Source of Drug Resistance

Roepe’s lab bustles with research activity that focuses on four areas of malaria research: genetics, imaging, drug development and fitness.

Over the past 15 years, he has received more than $10 million in funding from sources ranging from the National Institutes of Health to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, which have enabled the professor to make key discoveries that have already changed the way doctors and governments worldwide approach the treatment of malaria.

Roepe’s expertise in biochemistry has helped identify the drug-resistant gene in the species of malaria that most often kills. He also helped develop the first inexpensive “high throughput” test for screening antimalarial drug potency, which enables researchers to quickly determine the effectiveness of new formulas for antimalarial drugs. His discovery is now used by most malaria labs around the world and has been adopted by the U.S. military as their standard test.

Feeling the Pull Toward Resistance Research

Science lassoed Roepe in at an early age. His interest in science blossomed as a child from visits to his grandfather’s small New Jersey glass factory. He became fascinated with the hand-blown glass beakers and tubes he saw and the stories the glassblowers shared about their use by chemists at research and pharmaceutical companies.

That interest guided Roepe onto a path that eventually led him to study chemistry at Boston University, where he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in the late 1980s. It wasn’t until he began his postdoctoral work that he discovered his niche.

In 1986, researchers had identified the multidrug resistant (MDR) gene that makes tumors resistant to drugs, and Roepe became a part of that research team. The gene was one of a few hundred in the human genome that had been identified at the time – now there are thousands.

“There were only maybe five or six labs in the country doing the sorts of things I was doing as a postdoc, and literally, all [of us] became experts in drug resistance because [we] played with the molecules that were the closest relatives to this newly isolated MDR protein,” recalls Roepe.

That research has carried over into the professor’s current malaria drug-resistance work.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

Beyond the lab, Roepe commits a great deal of his time building bridges between departments and campuses. His research has led to collaborations with the physics and biology departments on Main Campus.

As a faculty member in both the School of Medicine’s biochemistry and molecular cellular biology and the tumor biology program at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, he is able to bring faculty together from Main Campus and the Medical Center for collaborative efforts.

“He’s a genuinely interdisciplinary scientist,” Urbach says. “He understands how to bring physics, chemistry and biology together to tackle the most challenging problems.”

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