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An Interview with Azza Idris, the Leading Malaria Researcher Joining the Ragon Faculty

Date: November 27, 2023 By: Nick Kolev

Last month, the Ragon was honored to welcome Azza Idris, MD, PhD, as our newest faculty member. She holds a dual appointment between the Ragon and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Global Health Divisions at Mass General for Children (MGfC).

A renowned researcher in malaria, Dr. Idris has worked for institutions such as the NIH and MIT to develop treatments and preventative measures for the malaria parasite. She has previously worked as a visiting researcher at the Ragon, and we are delighted that she has chosen to continue her established career within our Institute, leading the Idris Lab.

We spoke to Dr. Idris about what drew her to research, the specifics of her malaria work, as well as what she’s looking forward to in her new role—

As a brief overview of your career, what drew you to your field?

“My journey to malaria research was long and non-linear. I was born in Sudan and my family moved to New York when I was 10 years old. We would spend summers in Sudan where I witnessed the devastation that infectious diseases can cause. Instead of being on the sidelines, I wanted to make a difference against malaria to help my community.  This is what has fueled my passion to become a physician scientist.

While studying biology as an undergraduate at MIT I discovered my love for research. Up until then, I thought that the best way to have an impact was by studying medicine. It was my exposure to research that led me to consider doing both. So, I pursued a combined MD/PhD at Mount Sinai.

My PhD was focused on immunology, and I had the opportunity to work with Wayne Yokoyama studying NK cell target recognition. After completing the dual degree program, I moved to Atlanta for my residency training in pediatrics at Emory University. I practiced as a general pediatrician for about 8 years before pursuing my fellowship training in pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s National in DC. Although I valued and enjoyed being a pediatrician, I missed research. I didn’t want to look back on my career and wonder “what if?”  So, I pivoted towards science.

In 2015, I joined Robert Seder’s Lab as a post-doc researcher and later was appointed to Head of the Malaria Unit at the NIH Vaccine Research Center. I was working on understanding the humoral response elicited by the whole parasite vaccine, and this led to the isolation of several potent malaria-specific antibodies. Ultimately, our efforts culminated in successful Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials. As a physician scientist it has been incredibly rewarding to be involved in the benchwork that may translate to bedside intervention!”

With this strong desire to prevent and cure diseases which can really devastate people what drew you to malaria in particular?

“For me, it’s personal. I had malaria a couple of times growing up and have seen the havoc that it can cause — we’ve lost family members due to malaria. Malaria takes half a million children every year. It’s a pediatric emergency! Despite the efforts of many great minds in this field, an effective and durable vaccine for malaria has been elusive. There’s a lot of work to be done. Hopefully now with new advanced technologies this is a great time to come together to develop interventions towards malaria.”

Why is your focus specifically on pediatric care?

“I have always loved children and it wasn’t even a thought for me. In medical school, rotating through various clinical specialties, pediatrics simply felt like the right fit. With little ones, you’re trying to read clues and advocate for them. I guess they’re just naturally vulnerable and you feel compelled to protect them. As a pediatrician, I’m partnering with the parents and the whole family; everyone is really invested and interested in working towards the best outcome.”

Over the years you’ve collaborated with researchers from the Ragon quite a few times. Can you describe that relationship?

“Over the years I’ve worked with many investigators at the Ragon – including Facundo, Galit, Alex and Brandon – just to name a few. Our collaborations focused on different aspects of malaria antibody optimization and have led to exciting and fruitful science.  In fact, it was during one of our regular Zoom calls with Facundo, that he noticed I was sitting in Stata cafeteria at MIT and invited me to come see the Ragon.  I had been splitting my time between Jacquin Niles’ Lab, and the Seder Lab at the time. As a visiting researcher at the Ragon, I have been impressed with the quality of science, the focus on human immunology, and the sense of camaraderie – so when the opportunity presented itself – I knew the Ragon would be a good fit.”

This new appointment also coincides with your appointment to the MGH Divisions of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Global Health. What does that entail?

“It’s a joint position. On one hand, I will be building and leading the Idris Lab at the Ragon as a Principle Investigator, and on the other, I will be practicing as a pediatric infectious disease consultant. This will be a great opportunity to re-engage clinically with a team of supportive colleagues and stay connected to patient care.”  

What are the specific research areas and research focus of the Idris Lab?

“The overarching goal of the lab is to develop highly effective interventions against malaria. We can only do this when we have a better understanding of the parasite’s biology and the host immune responses. Bridging this gap would reveal the Achilles’ heel or vulnerabilities of the parasite.  This is a fascinating organism, that challenges the immune system with its diverse genome and complex life cycle.

A major area we’re focusing on is the early infectious form of the parasite because it is a bottleneck of the life cycle. This is logistically challenging since it requires a safe place to house, rear, grow, dissect and study the mosquito. We hope to overcome this hurdle by establishing an insectary at the Ragon. Having this resource on site will facilitate our progress in malaria research bringing us steps closer to developing highly effective vaccines and therapeutics.”

What do you foresee as the most exciting aspects of your work over the next five years?

“I’m excited to bring malaria to the Ragon and work with my newly found colleagues leveraging their unique perspectives in human immunology. By building a lab environment that promotes curiosity, inclusivity, and unity, I hope to empower the next generation of scientists. Having these meaningful relationships that foster and build bridges, especially with those in endemic regions, are key to making a lasting global health impact.”

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