Former GloCal Fellow Advances Malaria Research and COVID Testing Capacity in His Native Peru

Dr. Jaeson Calla describes GloCal malaria research in lab. Iquitos, Peru, February 2019.

Former GloCal fellow Dr. Jaeson Calla used his fellowship for important molecular and cell biology research on malaria, which harms many children in his native Peru. But he also credits his GloCal experience with giving him the skills he needed to help create the first molecular biology lab in Apurímac, Peru, increasing COVID-19 testing capacity in an area of the country hard-hit with the disease.

Dr. Calla learned about the fellowship as an associate scientist in Prof. Elizabeth Winzeler’s lab at UC San Diego. Dr. Winzeler told him “this call has your name on it,” Dr. Calla said. He was selected for the 2018-2019 program under the mentorship of Dr. Winzeler, Dr. Joseph Vinetz, and Dr. Dionicia Gamboa.

Dr. Calla’s fellowship research aimed at identifying biomarkers of Plasmodium vivax (the parasite that causes malaria) infection in human host cells as well as discovering new antimalarial compounds that might prevent and eliminate malaria. 

His project involved taking blood from malaria-infected patients in Iquitos, a gateway city to the Amazon in Peru. His team raised mosquitoes at an insectary in Iquitos, feeding them with the infected blood. The team dissected the infected mosquitos at adulthood to collect P. vivax and then infected human liver cells. Malaria infections begin in the liver, and infected people do not develop symptoms during this first stage. Identifying new targets in human liver cells creates a route to eliminate the parasite. 

Malaria treatment and worldwide eradication campaigns are threatened because the parasite is becoming resistant to existing drugs. In addition, its evasion of the human immune system is poorly understood. Dr. Calla studied the underlying mechanism of the human host to discover how the pathogen evades the host immune system, a crucial first step to identifying new possible antimalarial drugs. His work led to publications in the important journals Nature and Science. A third article based on the work done during his fellowship has been submitted to Cell.

In addition to his research, during his fellowship Dr. Calla worked to establish a strong partnership between UC San Diego and Peruvian researchers for longer-term collaboration.

Before the fellowship, Dr. Calla had worked exclusively in the lab, never with human subjects. The fellowship was the first time he had to get local health authorities to approve his research, and the first time he worked with medical doctors in the field.

The experience taught him “it's critical that researchers communicate directly with authorities,” he said. “Because if they don't do that, they are isolated, and the authorities are isolated, too.”

Dr. Calla took that lesson to heart when a friend contacted him in 2020 about establishing the first molecular biology lab in Abancay, a city in the southern-central Apurímac region of Peru, to detect SARS-CoV-2. At the time, COVID was decimating Peru, and the Apurímac region had the country’s highest COVID rate but no testing capacity. Samples had to be sent to other regions for processing, and getting a result could take 10 to 20 days, he said. Without testing capacity, public health officials couldn’t advise quarantining or perform contact tracing.

SARS-CoV-2 Detection Training in Apurimac, Peru early 2021. Photo courtesy of Jaeson Calla.

Dr. Calla told his friend they would need to get local authorities on board to make the lab a reality. Dr. Calla helped assemble a team of biologists, engineers, and others to talk with the health directors in Apurímac about how a lab could be created and pitfalls that should be avoided. The authorities were convinced, and funding was found to retrofit an existing building and for lab equipment. Once the lab began operating, samples were tested and results returned the same day, he said. The town has since become a leader is COVID diagnosis, and researchers at the lab are performing genomic sequencing to track variants, he said. 

Additionally, after the Apurímac lab became operational, Dr. Calla put together another team to set up a training program, and acquired funding for it through a COVID-related Peruvian government fund from the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development. The team brought together 54 health professionals involved in the fight against the COVID pandemic to be trained by Dr. Calla and his team on the use of molecular tools to detect SARS-CoV-2. This training was subsequently replicated online many times for hundreds of additional health professionals around Peru.

Dr. Calla said he is extremely grateful for the mentoring he received and the skills he learned through the GloCal Health Fellowship. He hopes to become a research professor in infectious diseases and to train new young researchers to continue researching pathogens to eradicate diseases such as malaria and coronavirus.

SARS-CoV-2 detection training organizers Dr. Jaeson Calla and UPCH Professor Dr. Maritza Calderón.