USF receives new NIH grant to help eliminate malaria in Southeast Asia

Tampa, FL (April  ­24, 2019) – The University of South Florida has been awarded approximately $700,000 in initial funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to study the effects of malaria treatments and mosquito control measures on health outcomes in Southeast Asia.  USF may receive up to approximately $4.56 million over five years for the project if milestones are met.

The new grant (3U19AI089672-11S1) helps supplement ambitious efforts by researchers and public health officials working toward eliminating all malaria in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) by 2030. In particular, USF researchers will work with collaborators in Thailand and Myanmar to evaluate whether mass treatment with the drug primaquine can prevent relapses of resilient Plasmodium vivax malaria in infection hotspots along the borders of those two GMS countries.

Preeminence funding helped recruit the project’s principal investigator Liwang Cui, PhD, an internationally-prominent malaria researcher, to USF Health.

“This latest award builds upon existing scientific advances of the Southeast Asia International Center of Excellence for Malaria Research (ICEMR) that focus on various aspects of malaria, including malaria parasite biology, epidemiology, vector control, mosquito insecticide resistance, drug resistance and antimalarial drug quality,” said principal investigator Liwang Cui, PhD, the Cohen Professor of Malaria Research at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. “Most of our malaria research currently targets Plasmodium falciparum malaria, but to achieve the goal of elimination worldwide we must successfully attack Plasmodium vivax malaria as well.”

When Dr. Cui was recruited to USF last fall from Pennsylvania State University, the Southeast Asia Malaria Research Center he co-leads was transferred to USF.  A network of institutions from the U.S and three GMS countries (China, Myanmar and Thailand), the Center is one of 11 ICEMRs funded by the NIAID.  Read more about Dr. Cui’s research.

While seldom as deadly as P. falciparum — the most lethal species of malaria — P. vivax is the major cause of malaria outside Africa. Vivax malaria is also able to cause significant morbidity due to recurring bouts of severe, incapacitating illness.

P. vivax poses a significant challenge to global initiatives to control and eradicate malaria since the parasite can lay dormant in a person’s liver for months or years before emerging to cause full-blown malaria. Primaquine treatment has proven to be highly effective in eliminating the liver stages of P. vivax. However, the drug requires screening to avoid the potentially life-threatening side effect of hemolytic anemia in genetically predisposed patients and rigorous monitoring to ensure treatment regimen compliance.

The mass primaquine prevention treatment (MPPT) project to be pursued with the new funding will include two stages, Cui said. Initially, researchers will evaluate the target population’s willingness to accept and readiness for large-scale drug administration in P. vivax predominant regions of Thailand and Myanmar.  They will also test the safety and effectiveness of MPPT in a limited number of small villages where the drug is provided through a Ministry of Health-led program. If successful at this stage, the implementation study will subsequently be expanded to a larger number of villages covered under the Ministry of Health-led program.

“If we can provide primaquine coverage for 80 percent of the population, the benefits of this preventive malaria treatment may actually extend to the entire population through indirect effects,” Cui said.

In 2017, about 435,000 people died from malaria worldwide and 219 million contracted the disease, according to the latest data available from the World Health Organization. Southeast Asia accounts for 5 percent of global malaria cases.

Other researchers working on the grant include Drs. Jetsumon Sattabongkot and Jaranit Kaewkungwal of Mahidol University, Thailand, and Drs. Myat Phone Kyaw and Than Naing Soe of the Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports.

-Photo by Torie Doll, USF Health Communications and Marketing