The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 7, 2001
May 7, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 33


$100 Million Pledged to Fight Malaria

The anonymous gift is the largest ever received for a single purpose

By Dennis O'Shea

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

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.

The gift--the university's largest ever for a single purpose--will establish the Johns Hopkins 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 off."

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 percent, larger.

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 other areas.

"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.

The $100 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 world health.

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 therapies.

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 eradicating malaria.

"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."