May 7, 2001|
VOL. 30, NO. 33
$100 Million Pledged to Fight Malaria
The anonymous gift is the largest ever received for a
By Dennis O'Shea
An anonymous donor has pledged $100 million to the
Bloomberg School of Public
Health for a 10-year effort to rid the world of malaria by
developing a new vaccine and drugs.
ever for a single purpose--will establish the
Malaria Institute. The multidisciplinary center will combine
traditional approaches with new weapons such as genomics and
bioinformatics to take aim at a disease that kills an estimated 1
million to 2 million people a year and leaves hundreds of
millions of others sick and destitute.
|Alfred Sommer, dean of the
Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Diane Griffin, professor
and chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular
Microbiology and Immunology.
"Malaria has long been a global scourge that drains the
lives and finances of villages and whole countries every year,
afflicting nearly half a billion people with acute disease,"
said Alfred Sommer, dean of the Bloomberg School. "A
child is killed by malaria every 30 seconds of every hour of
every day of every year. The donor has committed a fortune, not
for personal reward but to win a victory for mankind."
William R. Brody, president of
the university, said, "This gift is a visionary investment in the
health of millions and the future of humanity, especially in the
developing world. We are determined to make that investment pay
Malaria not only kills, it also impoverishes, suppressing
economic growth in Africa by up to 1.3 percent a year, a study
released last year by the World Health Organization said. Had
malaria been eradicated 35 years ago, the study said, sub-Saharan
Africa's gross domestic product now would be $100 billion, or 32
But the fight against the disease is losing ground.
Anti-malaria drugs are losing effectiveness as resistant strains
develop around the world, according to WHO. Eradication of
parasite-carrying mosquitoes with such agents as DDT carries
environmental concerns. Attempts to develop a vaccine have
failed. Research is underfunded because malaria is a relatively
small problem in the developed world. Pharmaceutical companies
have limited economic incentive to develop drugs aimed at a
market in the developing world.
The Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute will "wipe the slate
clean," Sommer said, and take a fresh look at the malaria problem
with new scientific tools, such as genetic sequencing and
bioinformatics, that are just being developed and applied in
"We will bring together outstanding young scientists from
multiple disciplines, not necessarily malaria experts," Sommer
said. "We'll teach them about malaria and put them together in a
critical mass, the goal being an innovative vaccine" and other
new anti-malarial drugs.
The institute will open with four lead re-searchers already
on the faculty of the Bloomberg School, and will add three or
four a year for several years, plus associated research personnel
and graduate students, Sommer said.
Diane Griffin, professor and chair of the W. Harry Feinstone
Department of Molecular
Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School, will
head the project until a director of the institute is hired.
The researchers will be specialists in such fields as
immunology and vaccine development, statistical analysis of
genetic data and population studies, the biology of malaria
parasites and their mosquito hosts, and molecular parasitology.
The institute will also establish core service centers to study
the genome of the parasite and the mosquito; the proteins
produced by genes in the parasite, the mosquito and humans; and
what happens to cells during the life cycle of the parasite and
the course of the disease.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute will
collaborate with scientists across the United States and around
the world and with WHO's "Roll Back Malaria" program, aimed at
halving the disease's worldwide impact by 2010, Sommer said.
The gift funding the institute is not designated as
endowment and will be spent over 10 years to maximize its impact,
Sommer said. The institute is expected to attract additional
funding from government and private sources, he said.
million gift matches the largest previous gift in Johns
Hopkins history, the $100 million given by alumnus and news media
entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg during the recent
Johns Hopkins Initiative
campaign. Bloomberg's gift benefited all the university's
schools. The School of Public Health, which received the largest
share, was renamed last month in recognition of Bloomberg's
devotion to an organization that has traditionally had difficulty
attracting financial support commensurate with its impact on
10-Year Program to Focus on
Pioneering Research of Dread Disease
By Tim Parsons
Bloomberg School of Public Health
This is a monumental undertaking and a revolutionary
approach to fighting this disease," says Alfred Sommer, dean of
the Bloomberg School of Public Health, about today's announcement
that the school has received $100 million to fight malaria (see
story, above). "We will be exploring new areas of research and
developing new techniques that will give us the tools necessary
to end this disease for all of humanity."
Malaria is an infection caused by a protozoan parasite from
the genus Plasmodium, of which four separate species are known to
infect humans. Mosquitoes ingest the parasite when they draw
blood from an infected person. The parasite lives and grows
inside the mosquito and is then spread to other people whenever
the mosquito takes another blood meal.
The disease is often painful and sometimes deadly. Once a
person is infected, the parasite attacks the liver and destroys
the red blood cells, causing them to stick to the sides of the
blood vessels where they eventually block the capillaries to the
brain and other organs. If not treated promptly, severe infection
may lead to coma, anemia, renal failure, convulsions and death.
Some medications are available to treat the malaria infection,
but the parasites are now increasingly resistant to current drug
According to WHO, between 300 and 500 million people are
infected with malaria each year, especially in tropical and
subtropical regions of the world. However, malaria is not limited
to developing nations. The Centers for Disease Control says there
are between 1,600 and 2,000 people with malaria in the United
States annually, but experts suspect another 2,000 cases remain
unreported each year.
With the establishment of the Johns Hopkins Malaria
Institute, the Bloomberg School of Public Health is committed
over the next 10 years to developing new approaches for
"We will be attacking malaria from a new perspective, as a
basic science initiative where we will let the data lead us in
new appropriate directions," says Diane Griffin, professor and
chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular
Microbiology and Immunology, to whom the future director of the
institute will report.
Griffin explains that the institute's efforts will take a
multidisciplinary approach to understanding the Plasmodium
parasite, mosquitoes and the genes and proteins involved in the
transmission of malaria. Researchers will also study the human
immune response to the disease.
"I don't think there's been anything quite like this
anywhere else," Griffin says. "Not that other people haven't been
conducting valuable research on malaria, but in most cases
researchers are working alone or in small groups. Now we will
bring together a critical mass of experts from around the world.
Together we will work in a truly multidisciplinary fashion to
attack this problem."
Malaria outbreaks are difficult to contain. A single human
host may be infected with a billion Plasmodium organisms. With
the aid of mosquitoes, a single infected individual can transmit
malaria to hundreds of other individuals within months, far
outstripping the infectiousness of HIV or tuberculosis. In
addition, the parasite has multiple and distinct life-cycle
stages that are split between humans and mosquitoes, a
characteristic that makes them difficult to target with a single
attack. It is also more genetically complex than a virus or
bacterium and rapidly adapts to drugs. The body's protection is
limited because the human immune system cannot mount a complete
response to malaria.
Researchers at the Bloomberg School have already begun
working on new ways of preventing the spread of malaria. Recent
efforts include the testing of a vaccine that short-circuits the
parasite and disrupts its growth in mosquitoes. Scientists also
are examining the roles zinc and vitamin A may play in preventing
the disease. In addition, they will continue to work with other
researchers around the world and with programs such as WHO's
"Roll Back Malaria."
Dean Sommer says, "The world desperately awaits the fruition
of this research. This task is not for the faint of heart. Our
faculty is committed to achieving this goal. The donor has shown
not only enormous insight into what would make a difference in
the world but also confidence in the school's ability to achieve
this victory for mankind."