Maria Yazdanbakhsh heads the department of Parasitology which uses basic and clinical research and employs an interdisciplinary group of basic and clinical scientists who focus on understanding host-parasite interactions at the molecular, cellular and population level. The knowledge gained is being applied to achieve the Department’s mission of contributing to
1) development of effective vaccines against parasitic diseases and
2) identification of parasite-derived immune modulatory molecules to control hyper-inflammatory diseases
Specifically, genetic modification of malaria parasites, pioneered in Leiden, has allowed advances to be made in malaria vaccine development, translating observations made in models systems into Phase I/II clinical trials. The studies of parasitic helminths have led to in depth characterization of highly specialized glycoconjugates that interact with the human host leading to immune modulation and metabolic change. This knowledge is used not only for helminth vaccine development but also for developing new therapies for hyper inflammatory diseases with focus on asthma and type 2 diabetes. Importantly, there has been solid links with academic centres in countries where parasitic infections are prevalent in rural areas but at the same time are modernising and facing non- communicable diseases. This means that Parasitology department in Leiden participates in the global fight against poverty-related and neglected diseases, and at the same time in the mandate to combat hyperinflammatory diseases.
Maria Yazdanbakhsh studied Medical Parasitology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and thereafter did her PhD at Amsterdam University on Immunobiology of eosinophils, which in part was based on studying parasites. After a post-doctoral fellowship, studying molecular biology of parasitic helminths at Imperial College London, she started her own laboratory at the Department of Parasitology, in Leiden University. She has spent sabbatical time at London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine taking short courses in epidemiology and statistics. After heading the Leiden Immunoparasitology Group, she became the head of the Department of Parasitology in 2015.
Maria Yazdanbakhsh is the president of Dutch Society for Parasitology. She has served in various national scientific committees including TOP/ZonMW, VICI, ALW and WOTRO. At the LUMC she is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board, the management team of medical profile area Immunity, Infection and Tolerance as well as committee on internationalisation. She has received the Leyton Science Research Award, Marie Curie fellowship in 1987, MSD Award in Human Parasitology in 1997 and will deliver the Leiden University Dies lecture in 2017.
Alongside regular curricular teaching, Maria Yazdanbakhsh has placed much emphasis into training biomedical and medical students not only from the Netherlands and Europe but also from developing countries. She has developed and coordinates the half minor/elective program for (bio)medical students at LUMC.
Diesoratie 2017 / Anniversary of Leiden University lecture 2017 was delivered by Maria Yazdanbakhsh entitled “From Parasitism to Mutualism”:
Through combining field studies in Africa/South East Asia with molecular immunological work in her laboratory in Leiden, Maria Yazdanbakhsh’s group has challenged the immunological basis of the Hygiene Hypothesis and introduced the concept that the regulatory network driven by chronic infections can play an important role to control inflammation underlying allergic disorders. Her seminal papers in the Lancet (Decreased atopy in children infected with Schistosoma haematobium: a role for parasite-induced interleukin-10 / Allergy, parasites and the hygiene hypothesis), showed that the negative association between helminth infections and allergies in Gabon is linked to regulatory cytokines. With increasing evidence of a beneficial effect of regulatory responses on insulin sensitivity, Maria Yazdanbakhsh has expanded her research to evaluate the role of helminths in the type 2 diabetes (T2D) epidemic in low to middle income countries (Helminth therapy or elimination: epidemiological, immunological, and clinical considerations / Helminth infections, type-2 immune response, and metabolic syndrome). From examining parasites and their products, the group has identified a number of parasite derived molecules with immune modulatory potential, which are being tested in animal models of asthma and T2D. These are new molecules that lead to exploitation of their chemical structure with the aim to define novel molecular entities capable of interacting with and modulating the immune system (Regulation of pathogenesis and immunity in helminth infections / Schistosome-derived omega-1 drives Th2 polarization by suppressing protein synthesis following internalization by the mannose receptor). The work in the laboratory has paved the way to randomised controlled trials in rural communities in Indonesia and Africa (Long-term treatment of intestinal helminths increases mite skin-test reactivity in Gabonese schoolchildren / Community deworming alleviates geohelminth-induced immune hyporesponsiveness). Through these well designed studies, some evidence has been produced for the ability of helminth infections to modulate the immune system and affect disease outcome.
In more recent years she started analysing cellular immune responses to malaria parasites during coinfection with helminths and then moved to analysing samples from controlled human malaria infection using CyTOF to gain an in-depth understanding of the interaction between P. falciparum and its human host.
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