Jacquin Niles

Niles posing with arms folded in laboratory
Jacquin Niles
Photograph by Bryce Vickmark, courtesy MIT

Jacquin C. Niles is an American professor of biotechnology and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Centre for Environmental Health Sciences. In his effort to develop new antimalarial drugs, Niles is researching the malaria parasite and its interactions with the human host.

Niles was born on Anguilla and stayed there until he graduated from high school. In high school he became interested in biology and chemistry. Niles studied chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1994. During his studies, he conducted a research project on nitrogenase. He was a doctoral student in Harvard’s MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program, working under the supervision of Steven R. Tannenbaum. He earned a MD and a PhD in molecular toxicology. During his PhD, he studied DNA damage caused by chronic inflammation and nitric oxide. He sought to understand the increased risk of cancer in inflammatory diseases. Niles worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, with Michael Marletta. His postdoctoral work was supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Niles was appointed to the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008. He was awarded the Director’s New Innovator Award by the National Institutes of Health. His research focuses on the development of parasites for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of malaria. He is developing tools to regulate gene expression and probes to study haem metabolism in malaria parasites and host-pathogen interactions. To this end, Niles has developed an automated deformation cytometer to measure the dynamic, mechanical responses of red blood cells. Niles is also interested in how Plasmodium falciparum controls haem content and has developed a technique to monitor haem.

Haem is a biomolecule that interacts with various antimalarial drugs. To study this, he has developed a haem-sensitive protein whose fluorescence decreases when it binds to haem. By expressing the haem-sensitive protein in the target parasite Plasmodium falciparum, Niles was able to monitor haem levels by changes in fluorescence. Thus, Niles was able to show that malaria parasites contain more labile haem than expected. In addition, Niles showed that CRISPR can be used to disrupt parasite genes, providing insight into how parasites enter and replicate in red blood cells.

Niles’ lab collects publicly available genomics and transcriptomics data from these parasites and then develops a range of technologies to invade the parasites and manipulate gene expression. Niles performs phenotypic screening to determine which parasites should be selected for further development. Niles integrates target information into the phenotypic screening, which provides information on exactly which targets the drug interacts with, in addition to the efficacy of the drug. Niles uses CRISPR gene editing to incorporate the technologies that control when genes are turned on or off. Once Niles has identified the specific genes targeted by a drug, he can direct the expression of that gene to make the parasites more susceptible to the drug, and then map the susceptibility relationships to understand the relationships between drugs and target genes.

Dr. Niles is part of a multi-institutional study on apicomplexan parasites, working with Karine Le Roch at the University of California, Riverside. He has also collaborated with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Emily Derbyshire at Duke University, studying how a lipid-protein compound in malaria parasite cells helps the parasite survive high temperatures caused by fever. In April 2019, Niles was appointed director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Centre for Environmental Health Sciences.