Two UGA researchers are working to make it easier to develop effective treatments for malaria, a disease that sickens millions worldwide and kills hundreds of thousands each year.
In tropical climates around the globe, malaria poses a grave risk to already vulnerable populations. In 2019, the World Health Organization estimated that there were 229 million clinical cases of malaria worldwide and 409,000 deaths, usually in children below the age of five.
Currently, developing and testing drugs for malaria requires scientists to work in areas where the disease is prevalent or to work with expensive, hard-to-source equipment. Chester Joyner, an Assistant Professor in the Center for Vaccines and Immunology, and Dennis Kyle, Professor of Infectious Diseases and Cellular Biology, are working to reduce those barriers to malaria drug testing and development.
Joyner and Kyle aim to establish systems that rely on equipment most researchers can obtain: a petri dish. If successful, Joyner says this new culture system will reduce costs and be distributed more easily to advance drug and vaccine research. The University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine received a grant for malaria drug development and testing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Worldwide, there are many malaria-causing parasites that result in varying degrees of illness. Joyner and Kyle’s research focuses on defeating one of the most challenging: Plasmodium vivax. Unlike many other malaria parasites, P. vivax can lie dormant in the livers of its hosts—allowing the infected to travel abroad completely unaware that they’re carrying a potentially deadly passenger.
“Most infections with P. vivax are not due to new infections,” says Joyner. “These infections come from this parasite activating and potentially causing disease and sustaining transmission.”
Malaria disproportionately affects the poorest communities in the world, creating a cycle of disease and poverty that current treatments have improved but been unable to stop. However, treating the dormant forms of P. vivax has been particularly challenging because they can cause more harm than good in at-risk populations like pregnant women and people with certain blood conditions.
“We want researchers to have access to technologies to study P. vivax and develop new approaches to control and eliminate this parasite,” Joyner explains.