Penn State to lead new international center for malaria research

University Park, Pa. -- A researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will lead a seven-year, $14.5 million project to fight malaria in Southeast Asia.

Liwang Cui, professor of entomology, is the principal investigator for the Southeast Asia Malaria Research Center, one of 10 International Centers of Excellence for Malaria Research announced July 8 by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

About 40 percent of the world's population is at risk for malaria. An estimated 300 million to 500 million people worldwide contract the disease each year, and as many as 1 million of them die, according to Cui. Malaria is caused by a parasite carried by various species of mosquito.

The 10 new centers will address research needs in regions where malaria is endemic, including parts of Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Latin America. The Southeast Asia center will be a collaborative effort among Penn State, the University of California-Irvine and several institutions in China, Thailand and Myanmar.

"Southeast Asia accounts for 30 percent of global malaria morbidity and 8 percent of global mortality," Cui said. "We will build an international malaria center in this region that brings together diverse expertise from outstanding institutions to address urgent problems relevant to both regional and global malaria control."

Cui noted that various factors make malaria control a particular challenge in the region. "Different forms of the malaria parasite in Southeast Asia are carried by different vectors, each requiring different treatment," he said. "This is magnified by the limited scientific knowledge on the complex interaction between the human host, mosquito vectors and the parasite.

"There also are issues related to emerging drug resistance in Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the most serious form of the disease, as well as problems with fake and counterfeit drugs circulating in the region," he explained. "In addition, political instability and transmigration along border areas pose special challenges in disease surveillance, diagnosis, treatment and control."

The center will undertake scientific research in four project areas:

  • -- "Malaria epidemiology in Southeast Asia: inter- and intra-country dynamics" will  develop and evaluate integrated malaria-control strategies in multiple sites with varying epidemiological conditions.
  • -- "The malaria vectorial system and new vector-control tools in Southeast Asia" aims to understand the ecology of malaria vectors in the region and develop innovative malaria-transmission surveillance and control tools.
  • -- "Antimalarial drug resistance in P. falciparum" is designed to determine the genetic mechanism of drug resistance in malaria parasite populations.
  • -- "Development of monoclonal antibody-based assays for detection and quantification of artemisinin derivatives" will develop methods for monitoring drug quality control.

"The participating institutions have internationally recognized investigators with a history of collaborations in malaria research and training," Cui said. "By selecting study sites in the most impoverished areas of Myanmar, China and Thailand, this consortium will shed new light on the urgent scientific questions surrounding regional and global malaria control."

The new center is just the latest malaria-related research initiative in the College of Agricultural Sciences, according to Gary Felton, head of the entomology department. He noted that entomology professors Matthew Thomas and Andrew Read are co-investigators on another of the 10 NIH-funded malaria research centers, the Center for the Study of Complex Malaria in India, led by a researcher at New York University School of Medicine. Other college scientists -- some affiliated with Penn State's Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics -- also conduct malaria studies.

"NIH and other agencies have placed increased emphasis on malaria in the last decade," Felton said, "and Penn State has emerged as a major player in researching this important disease that affects the health and welfare of hundreds of millions of the world's citizens."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010