FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000
A new malaria laboratory facility was recently dedicated at the University of Mali in Bamako, Mali, West Africa, to promote malaria research, especially the development of effective malaria vaccines. Representatives from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) as well as the U.S. Ambassador to Mali, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Mali Minister of Health and the Minister of Higher Education, and other dignitaries participated in the dedication ceremonies.
NIAID has been a longstanding supporter and collaborator of Malian scientists. "The Mali facility is a critical part of NIAID's efforts to combat malaria," says Thomas J. Kindt, Ph.D., director of NIAID's Division of Intramural Research (DIR). "The availability of a state-of-the-art research center in an endemic region provides an invaluable base for studies of the disease, its vector and its causative agent at every level. We hope that the MRTC will continue to provide a base not only for NIAID-funded scientists and their Malian counterparts, but also for committed health professionals from all over the world."
The labs are part of the Malaria Research and Training Center (MRTC), which opened in 1989. The MRTC works closely with the Malian Ministry of Health as well as the National Malaria Control Program. The new facility will house new and ongoing research and training programs, supported by NIAID's DIR, the USAID, NIAID's Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID), the NIH Office of Research on Minority Health, the NIH Fogarty International Center, the World Health Organization and NASA. The new building, which has recently been wired for Internet service, contains two large labs, a conference room and library, and several classrooms.
"The benefit of the MRTC program is that Malian scientists carry out the research," says Robert Gwadz, Ph.D., assistant chief of NIAID's Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases. "Many Malian scientists come to the United States for training and education, but then they return to Mali where they can apply the most modern tools to the study of malaria."
Malaria is caused by a parasite that lives in Anopheles mosquitoes. An infected mosquito can transmit the parasite to a human when the bug bites and its infected saliva mixes with human blood. In the United States, hundreds of cases of malaria -- most picked up by travelers overseas -- are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each year. Elsewhere, in tropical climates such as Africa, Asia, and South and Central America where mosquitoes thrive, malaria is at epidemic proportions. Each year, an estimated 300 million people are infected with the malaria parasite, and more than 1 million people, mostly children, die from the disease.
The MRTC labs conduct a broad range of research activities, including studies on the basic epidemiology of disease. Current MRTC program objectives include the detection of parasite resistance to antimalarial drugs; the role of hemoglobin C in malaria pathogenesis; and clinical and field testing of malaria vaccine candidates.
Parasite resistance to antimalarial drugs is a serious concern. Scientists have recently developed a series of tests that rapidly detect resistance in malaria parasites. Researchers are also studying the role of hemoglobin C in the prevention of malaria. Studies in village populations have found that people with high concentrations of hemoglobin C in their blood are more resistant to the malaria parasite, and less likely to develop or die from serious disease. Researchers are also developing field sites for the eventual testing of candidate malaria vaccines. They are collecting data on seasonal changes that indicate when most people become infected with malaria, studying the severity of these infections, and determining how a vaccine would best be tested in a human population.
The new labs, primarily devoted to supporting malaria vaccine research and the testing of vaccine candidates, will be an important collaborating facility for DIR's Malaria Vaccine Development Unit located in Maryland, as well as for other NIAID-supported investigators.
Although currently there is no vaccine available for the prevention of malaria, two promising vaccine approaches are being investigated at the MRTC: a blood-stage parasite vaccine and a transmission-blocking vaccine. A blood-stage parasite vaccine attacks the stages of the parasite that cause disease and death, while a transmission-blocking vaccine prevents the transmission of malaria via mosquitoes from an infected person to a non-infected person.
MRTC researchers also take an active role in the control of malaria in village populations by stressing better protocols for the treatment of sick children. Outreach efforts have been very successful in teaching parents to seek appropriate medical treatment for their children, thereby reducing mortality rates and the spread of disease.
In addition to NIAID support, the MRTC labs receive funding from several other international and U.S. agencies, organizations and universities. For example, researchers supported by NIAID, NASA and NOAA are using geographic information systems to detect climactic conditions that affect mosquito populations and disease prevalence. By analyzing satellite imagery, scientists can identify such conditions, including humidity, moisture and areas of water, that attract mosquitoes and increase the potential for disease outbreaks. "Both climate and remote sensing will be used to predict malaria because climate brings water, water brings mosquitoes, and mosquitoes bring malaria," says Dr. Gwadz. In other studies supported by NIAID, as well as the World Health Organization and other foundations, scientists are in the preliminary stages of studying the possible genetic alteration of mosquitoes. Theoretically, scientists would remove the disease-causing properties of the mosquito and then reintroduce the modified mosquitoes into the environment, thereby replacing "bad" mosquitoes with "good" mosquitoes. However, Dr. Gwadz cautions, "This is a very long-range approach with many difficulties. It would not replace or compete with a vaccine strategy, but be part of an integrated malaria control program."
The MRTC has recently entered the technology age by connecting to the Internet via MaliNet, a local Internet service provider (ISP). Unfortunately, overuse of the ISPs in Mali have made connections slow and unreliable. Therefore, the MRTC is currently upgrading its Internet connection to direct satellite uplinks, which are much faster and more dependable than the local ISP connections. This direct link to the NIH campus will enable Malian researchers to collaborate and exchange data with researchers in Bethesda, MD.
The MRTC is also developing a wireless network using packet-radio to link the most remote field research clinics to the Internet. This will allow voice, fax and e-mail communications, and database updates from any location within 1000 kilometers of Bamako, Mali.
Research efforts and opportunities at the MRTC are further enhanced by a training program developed by the International Research Unit of NIAID's Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases. This program offers a unique opportunity for undergraduate and graduate minority students interested in biomedical research to obtain experience in emerging infectious and tropical disease research. Students work under the direction of research or clinical mentors in Africa. The program is sponsored by NIAID and the NIH Fogarty International Center, and the Office of Research on Minority Health. The University of Maryland School of Medicine directs the program in cooperation with the University of Mali. Students in the program receive free room and board at a guest house at the University of Mali, plus a monthly stipend. For more information, persons can contact the University of Maryland School of Medicine at (410) 706-2491.
The new MRTC lab is a unique research facility that provides the proper tools, resources and technology to scientists who can then carry out malaria research in their native countries where the disease is endemic. NIAID's continuing support for the MRTC underscores its commitment to the Mali project and to improving global health.
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Last Updated September 20, 2000