Fighting malaria a major research focus at the USF College of Public Health

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Three Distinguished USF Health Professors in the Department of Global Health at the USF College of Public Health – Drs. Tom Unnasch, John Adams and Dennis Kyle – are ranked among the university’s best externally-funded investigators in terms of research dollars, and two are in the top five. A major focus of their research is malaria.

A fourth Global Health professor, Dr. Michael White, published a groundbreaking study just last month that may revolutionize the global fight against malaria.

Unnasch, the department chair, said much of Global Health’s research funding comes from external grants from the National Institutes of Health, primarily the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has come through with what he called “a substantial portfolio of funding”: a $4.5-million grant to Adams this year for developing new drugs and researching new genetic targets for malaria.

Kyle and Adams also have established collaborations with the Draper Laboratory to conduct research with artificial livers to study malaria in livers, which also is funded by the Gates Foundation, Unnasch said.

The combination of expertise and generous funding has helped put the department on the global cutting edge and in the thick of international connections that will help keep it there.

“The department is becoming quite well-known now as a research institution for malaria and other vector-borne diseases,” Unnasch said. “We have lots of good collaborations with people in Thailand at Mahidol University, and a lot of collaborations with people in Africa. There’s also quite a bit of contact between our department and people in the mosquito control field here in the state of Florida.”

Mosquito

Unnasch said those include regular work with the Florida Mosquito Control Association (of which Unnasch is on the board of directors), the Department of Health Laboratories, the Florida Department of Health, and various research projects with mosquito control in Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee, Volusia and St. Johns counties, as well as with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District in Monroe County.

For mosquito researchers, Unnasch said, the reason is obvious. For everyone else, it might be alarming.

“Florida’s the best place in the country if you want to do research on mosquito-transmitted diseases,” he said. “There are four arthropod-borne viruses, or arbovirus, infections that occur in the United States, and three out of the four are endemic to Florida. That’s why Florida spends $75-100 million a year on mosquito control. Only California spends more.”

Last month, the College of Public Health made headlines as Dr. Michael White, a professor in the College of Public Health’s Department of Global Health and the Morsani College of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Medicine, led a team of researchers that became the first to uncover part of the mysterious process by which malaria-related parasites spread at explosive and deadly rates inside humans and other animals.

As drug-resistant malaria threatens to become a major public health crisis, the findings could potentially lead to a powerful new treatment for malaria-caused illnesses that kill more than 600,000 people a year.

In a study published online March 3 in the high-impact journal PLOS Biology, the USF researchers and their colleagues at the University of Georgia discovered how these ancient parasites manage to replicate their chromosomes up to thousands of times before spinning off into daughter cells with perfect similitude – all the while avoiding cell death.

Malaria caused about 207 million cases and 627,000 deaths in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  About 3.2 billion people, or nearly half the world’s population, are at risk of malaria, according to the World Health Organization.

White said that this study, which he called the first for a USF Health laboratory in publishing original research in PLOS Biology, will help get more potential treatments in the pipeline.

“The more we understand their vulnerability,” he said of the parasites, “the better chance we can keep that pipeline full.”

With the collective efforts and expertise of Drs. Adams, Kyle, Unnasch and White, the USF College of Public Health will remain on the front lines of the fight against one of the world’s most daunting health threats.

 

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Dr. Dennis Kyle receives NIH award to understand extreme drug resistance in malaria
Dr. John Adams leads workshop for Gates Foundation scientists conducting malaria research