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May 6, 2001

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

Anonymous Donor Establishes Ambitious Public Health Goal

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is launching a 10-year, $100 million initiative to rid the world of malaria. To achieve this ambitious goal, the School is establishing the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research 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.

According to the World Health Organization, 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 and Prevention says 1,600 to 2,000 people are infected with malaria in the United States annually, but experts suspect another 2,000 cases remain unreported each year.

Funding for this monumental undertaking comes from an anonymous donor who wants to stop a devastating illness that affects millions of children in developing countries throughout the world. The establishment of the Hopkins Malaria Research Institute was announced on May 6, 2001, in Baltimore, Md., during the University's spring trustees' dinner.

"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 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The donor has committed a fortune—not for personal reward but to win a victory for mankind."

Malaria is an infection caused by a protozoan parasite from the genus Plasmodium, four separate species of which 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, severe anemia, renal failure, convulsions, and death. Some medications are available to treat malaria infection, but the parasites are now increasingly resistant to current drug therapies.

"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 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. 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," 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."

Dr. Griffin explains that malaria may be tougher to combat than HIV or tuberculosis. The parasite has multiple and distinct life-cycle stages that are split between humans and mosquitoes, making it difficult to target with a single attack. The parasite is also more genetically complex than a virus or bacterium and can adapt rapidly to drugs. The body's protection is limited because the human immune system cannot mount a complete response to malaria.

Malaria outbreaks are also 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 surpassing the infectiousness of HIV or tuberculosis.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins 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 that 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.

"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.

The Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health was recently renamed the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in honor of Johns Hopkins alumnus and media entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg. The Bloomberg School of Public Health was founded in 1916 as the world's first school of public health and remains the world's largest in terms of students, faculty, and research funding.

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