Image: Home testing for malaria in Papua New Guinea
Burnet malaria scientists Professor James Beeson and Dr Leanne Robinson are investigators on two large long-term collaborative projects focused on the control and elimination of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia-Pacific.
Funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAIAD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the seven-year projects take a multidisciplinary approach to better understand the complex interactions between human hosts, mosquito vectors and the Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria.
The sub-Saharan Africa project, led by Prof. Guiyun Yun of University of California Irvine, and with a budget of US$8m, will investigate the impact on malaria control and transmission of geographic and environmental changes brought about by the construction of new dams and major irrigation schemes in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The project will investigate the patterns of malaria, how they change over time and the populations at risk; the transmission of malaria; the development of disease and immunity; and opportunities for capacity building.
“These components are interlinked, they are complementary and they run across different sites in Ethiopia and Kenya. It’s an ambitious program that aims to achieve major outcomes,” said Professor Beeson, Burnet’s Deputy Director (People) and Head of the Malaria Immunity and Vaccines Research Group.
“There’s a huge number of these land and water projects across Africa so it’s really important to know the impact they have on malaria control and elimination, and that knowledge can then be used to get the interventions, planning, and resourcing of interventions right.
“By studying the patterns of disease, where malaria’s occurring and how it’s transmitted you can then tailor or modify malaria control interventions more effectively to roll back malaria and, down the track, aim for malaria elimination.
“We will be playing a role in understanding how immunity develops, the impact of these changes on immunity in the populations, and how can we use this knowledge to develop vaccines and identify populations at risk, working with fellow investigators and long-standing Burnet collaborators, Professors Jim Kazura, Chris King, and Arlene Dent of Case Western Reserve University.”
Professor Beeson said the Asia-Pacific project will take a similar ‘big picture’ approach to problems particular to Papua New Guinea (PNG), where the burden of Plasmodium vivax malaria is among the highest in the world per capita, and Cambodia, which has high rates of resistance to the front line malaria drug, artemisinin.
Dr Robinson is co-lead of the epidemiological program with a particular focus on PNG in partnership with Dr William Pomat and Dr Moses Laman at the PNG Institute for Medical Research, while Professor Beeson will head research into immunity across the sites.
Prof. Ivo Mueller of the Institut Pasteur and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is the program director and a long-term collaborator of Burnet.
The aims include the development of serological surveillance tools to track changes in malaria transmission over time and help inform where malaria interventions should be targeted.
“PNG and Cambodia each have their particular issues and challenges, but they share a background of ‘silent’ malaria, where people are carrying the infection, which means they’re infectious and they can transmit malaria, but they’re not sick and going to the clinic to be treated. We don’t have a good understanding of this important issue,” Professor Beeson said.
“It’s a bit like what’s under the water with an iceberg.”
Professor Beeson expects the project to offer new insights into malaria transmission, and enable the development of more effective malaria control and elimination efforts, not only in PNG and Cambodia, but other malaria endemic countries.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity and an exciting program,” he said. “It’s ambitious and large-scale, but in order to make the sort of major advances that are needed, we need these large multinational partnerships.
“It’s going to push us scientifically, and a program of that size comes with big expectations, but we all have an ambition to achieve something really significant out of this.”
One of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity globally, malaria was responsible for around 438,000 deaths and 214 million clinical cases in 2015. An estimated 3.2 billion people are at risk of the disease, with young children and pregnant women most affected.