A boost for gene-based malaria research

Spring/Summer 2012 ]

A two-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, totaling nearly $833,000, will help boost research at Harvard School of Public Health aimed at identifying the genes in red blood cells essential for the malaria parasite to survive. Manoj Duraisingh, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases, working in collaboration with the Broad Institute, hopes to identify those genes most likely to respond to drug therapies.

Malaria kills roughly 1 million people each year, mostly children under age 5 in sub-Saharan Africa. There is no licensed vaccine for the infection.

“The award of this Phase II Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Gates Foundation allows us to build on our Phase I grant, where we demonstrated the efficacy of our novel approach of targeting red blood cells,” says Duraisingh. “We will now expand and accelerate this research and produce a comprehensive catalog of candidates to help us identify and prioritize the most promising ones for drug development.”

Because the malaria parasite frequently finds ways to resist antimalarial drugs, genetic approaches to study the parasite and validate new therapeutic targets are urgent, Duraisingh says. Instead of targeting the parasite, Duraisingh targets the red blood cell host, which cannot evolve resistance to new antimalarial drugs. Duraisingh and his colleagues plan to identify the molecules in red blood cells that play a crucial role in supporting the malaria parasite, thus creating a “blueprint” of all the genes that could be targets for antimalarial drugs.

The Gates Grand Challenges Explorations grant supports creative, high-risk concepts with the potential to develop solutions to difficult global health problems.