Partnering Overseas to Battle Malaria
American and Indian researchers use cutting-edge innovations to uncover the genetic secrets of the disease.
For Professor Jane Carlton, an international quest to battle a dangerous disease in India began with a chance encounter. “I met Dr. Hema Joshi at a conference in 2004 and we just clicked,” the New York University genomics expert recalls. “She was based out of the National Institute of Malaria Research in Delhi and was an amazing woman.”
Key to the professor’s new friendship was a shared fascination for Plasmodium vivax a k a one of the parasites that causes malaria.
“Plasmodium falciparum is the most common form of malaria parasite in Africa,” says Carlton, describing the widespread disease that infects humans through mosquito bites. “But in India, vivax malaria is just as prevalent.” While the former species of parasite can be deadly, the latter does not necessarily kill, but can cause repeated bouts of fever and prolonged misery. “There’s an old adage that says that falciparum malaria will kill you, but vivax malaria will make you wish you were dead,” she says.
Both species of malaria parasites cause big problems in India, where the climate provides a perfect home for malaria-carrying mosquitos.
The cost of malaria to India’s citizens can be measured not just in human suffering, but in lost work hours. “If the young male workforce is sick and can’t work, families go without food because they don’t have money,” she says. “It’s a huge problem.”
Carlton and her colleagues—led in India by the National Institute of Malaria Research Director Dr. Neena Valecha, and in the United States by Dr. Matthew Thomas and Dr. Andrew Read of Pennsylvania State University—collaborated on a grant application, winning $10 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health for an International Center of Excellence for Malaria Research in India over a seven-year period. Even though the program is just beginning, the professor sees great potential.
“We are working with three of the NIMR field centers in India to collect samples, study how the disease evolves and spreads, experiment with the transmission and reproduction of the parasite, and find better ways to battle it,” says Carlton. One of the international team’s biggest goals is to fully sequence the genome of many samples of the P. vivax parasite, a process that will help them develop potent vaccines and medications to fight it.
Such genetic research has already helped patients all over India. “To diagnose malaria, you normally have to take a drop of blood and have a trained microscopist examine it, and sometimes the parasite can be difficult to see,” says Carlton. “The three centers we’re working with all now have new ‘PCR’ machines that can amplify the parasite’s DNA in a drop of blood and identify missed cases of malaria.”
Tragically, Carlton’s original Indian collaborator Dr. Joshi passed away in 2010 and will never see the fruits of the partnership she helped create. Though the loss was huge for Carlton, the work goes on. “We have an outstanding team, both in India and the United States, and the grant is giving us a great opportunity to explore and get a handle on the disease,” says Carlton. “The knowledge that we’re able to gain could make a huge difference in battling malaria not just in India, but around the world.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.
Malaria Health Tips
Professor Jane Carlton recommends a few basic steps to avoid getting bitten by a malaria-carrying bloodsucker. “Most bites happen at dawn or dusk, so if you have to be outside during those times, try to wear long sleeves and use mosquito spray, especially on your hands and ankles, since mosquitos are attracted to smelly feet,” she says with a smile. “Also, if you can put screens in the windows to keep mosquitos out and sleep under a mosquito net, that helps quite a bit as well.”
“Given the tropical climate in India, doing these things may be uncomfortable,” she says, “but the more you can do, the safer you’ll be.”
If you think you might have contracted malaria, the professor affirms that a clinic, not a drug store, should be your first stop. “Since malaria is so common in India, many people shrug it off like it’s a common cold, but it’s important to get properly diagnosed and treated,” she says. “If you take medication when you don’t have the disease, or you stop your treatment partway through, it can lead to drug resistance in malaria parasites, which can cause even bigger problems and be difficult to treat.” —M.G.
For more information, visit www.malaria.org.