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New Reasons for Hope in Fight Against Ancient, Wily Killer

By Michael Purdy

As the School’s Malaria Research Institute (JHMRI) approaches its second anniversary, researchers are eagerly applying a rush of new information and new tools to tackle one of the oldest, wiliest, and deadliest diseases to afflict humanity.

Seven new faculty have arrived or are scheduled to arrive in the coming year, three new state-of-the-art research core facilities are up and running at Hopkins, and a field research center in Zambia, in the heart of malaria-ravaged Africa, will open this year. Added to all this is the recent publication by other researchers of the malaria parasite’s genome.

“We’ve spent the first two years really putting the team infrastructure and the research units in place, and now we're ready to move forward on several fronts,” says Diane Griffin, chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI), and director of JHMRI, established at the School in May 2001 by an anonymous $100 million gift.

Included among the Institute’s new recruits are established pioneers like Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, PhD, an entomologist coming to Johns Hopkins from Case Western University later this year. Jacobs-Lorena recently generated excitement among malaria researchers  by developing a mosquito genetically engineered to impair its ability to pass the malaria parasite to test animals. 

New faculty hires at the Institute also include up-and-coming re-searchers like Sean Prigge, PhD, a structural biologist interested in malaria enzymes involved in the creation of fatty acids. Researchers have shown that drugs that block this metabolic pathway can kill malaria. 

“We are not sure why this pathway is essential to the parasite’s survival during the blood infection stage,” Prigge says. “It involves some tricky biochemistry, but I’m working to see if blocking this particular pathway blocks production of other things that are essential to malaria.”

Prigge is pleased to have the malaria genome and JHMRI’s research core facilities to aid his research. The latter include a facility for high-tech imaging and micros-copy, a facility for monitoring environmental conditions in areas of malaria transmission, and a gene array and proteomics facility to help researchers rapidly analyze the activity of genes and interactions between the proteins they produce.

To study malaria in its natural environment, the Institute will open a new field research center in Zambia this year.

“The new center is in an area where malaria is hyperendemic and the mosquitoes have never been exposed to pesticides,” says Clive Shiff, PhD, an MMI associate professor with 30 years of field research experience in Africa. “So it’s almost unique from the perspective of mosquito biology and how that impacts malaria transmission.”