Malaria is a debilitating disease caused by a tiny microbe that is transmitted from an infected person to other people by mosquitoes. More than 300 million people are affected by malaria worldwide, and 1.5 million die from it annually. Those that do not succumb to the disease suffer periodic bouts of sickness that diminishes their ability to work and care for their families.
According to Liwang Cui, assistant professor of entomology at Penn State, malaria still is a major health problem in Thailand. While reported malaria cases have continued to decrease over the past two decades in Thailand, in rural areas people still remain at great risk. "In Thailand, all four species of malaria occur, but the vast majority are caused by the Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax infections," said Cui. "While major focus has been on P. falciparum, the most deadly of all malaria species, the burden of P. vivax has largely been neglected. In recent years, worldwide distribution of P. vivax has expanded significantly and the number of cases has been on the rise."
According to Cui, an integrated approach is needed targeting the two most prevalent malaria types. "Understanding how the parasites function, develop and survive will allow us to explore new vaccine and drug options," said Cui. "Many of today's drugs are becoming less effective due to the buildup of resistance within parasite populations. Research concerning population structure and genetic mutations will teach us about the parasites' long-term reactions to drugs."
Cui and researchers from Thailand's AFRIMS and Mahidol University are studying the population structure of P. vivax. "Because malaria caused by each Plasmodium species is treated with different drugs, correct diagnosis of the disease is essential," explained Cui. "Just as understanding the biology of P. falciparum has significantly advanced management of that parasite, we are hoping that by obtaining more information on P. vivax, we can better manage malaria." So far, the ability to sequence the genome of P. vivax for the very first time has allowed Cui and his colleagues to discover valuable data that should aid in current control measures in regions in Thailand where P. vivax is prevalent.
In addition to the research program, Cui is part of a collaborative team of researchers that received a training grant from the Fogarty International Center of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. "The grant is allowing experts in U.S. and Thailand to train future scientists in Thailand to be better equipped to address the challenges of malaria," Cui said. Currently, both students in the United States and Thailand participating in the program are finishing up their course work and will be moving on to more research-based work. "Hopefully, the preliminary work they are doing will help us obtain additional research grants and further our work," Cui said. The collaborative malaria research and education projects will help cement the relationship of U.S. universities with their sister institutions in Southeast Asia.