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Embargoed for Release
on May 7, 2001
or Ming Tai

Bloomberg School of Public Health Launches
$100 Million Initiative to Rid World of Malaria

10-Year Program to Focus on Pioneering Research
of Dreaded Disease

The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health is launching a $100 million initiative to rid the world of malaria. To achieve this ambitious goal, the Bloomberg School is establishing the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute, which will be a state-of-the-art research facility specifically devoted to studying malaria, developing a vaccine, and identifying new drug targets to prevent and cure this deadly disease.

"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. A child is killed by malaria every 30 seconds of every hour of every day of every year," says Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "This is a monumental undertaking and a revolutionary approach to fighting this disease. 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," adds Dean Sommer.

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 the World Health Organization (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 to 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, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. Griffin explains that the Institute's efforts will take a multi-disciplinary 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," says Dr. Griffin. "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, under one roof, a critical mass of experts from around the world. Together we will work in a truly multidisciplinary fashion to attack this problem," adds Dr. Griffin.

Dr. Griffin explains that 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, which 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 of Public Health have already begun working on new ways of preventing the spread of malaria. Recent efforts include the testing of a vaccine, which short-circuits the parasite and disrupts its growth in mosquitoes. Scientists are also 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 the WHO's "Roll Back Malaria" program.

Funding for the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute comes from an anonymous donor who wants to make an impact on a devastating illness that affects millions of children in developing countries throughout the world.

"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," explains Dean Sommer.

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