UF awarded NIH Funding for new malaria research center

Dr. Dinglasan in lab

Dr. Rhoel Dinglasan in his laboratory.

By Sarah Carey and DeLene Beeland

Although global malaria deaths have declined by 27% over the past two decades, the disease still exacts a major toll, especially in Africa.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2023 World Malaria Report, there were 233 million malaria cases in Africa in 2022, resulting in 508,000 deaths. That’s 83% of the world’s total deaths from malaria.

Now, a five-year, $3.6 million award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, aims to turn the tide through a new International Center of Excellence for Malaria Research led by University of Florida scientist Rhoel Dinglasan, Ph.D., M.P.H., and partners in Africa.

“We have been preparing to compete for this new center over the past eight years,” said Dinglasan, a professor of infectious diseases at UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine who also is associated with the university’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. “It is an honor to be working with my two co-principal investigators, professors Christian Happi and Charles Wondji from Nigeria and Cameroon, respectively.”

The cooperative agreement from NIAID will fund evidence-based strategies to support malaria eradication and elimination efforts.

“Malaria elimination means targeting all parasite species that cause the disease, not just Plasmodium falciparum,” Dinglasan said, referencing the parasite most commonly associated with malaria deaths.

The center’s name, ÉMERGENTS, combining French and English, alludes to the concept of emerging issues that may prove to be a challenge for malaria elimination and eradication efforts. Its full title is West-Central Africa Enhancing Malaria Epidemiology Research through Genomics & Translational Systems biology.

The new center will help fill knowledge gaps about malaria parasite species in addition to Plasmodium falciparum, investigate the geographic expansion of invasive Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes and determine factors driving insecticide resistance.

“Malaria is a disease that causes a lot of havoc in children and pregnant women in this region,” said Happi, a professor of molecular biology and genomics at Redeemer’s University in Ede, Nigeria. “With the right combination of drugs and vaccines, it can be eradicated.”

Wondji, a professor of genetics and executive director of the Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases in Yaoundé, Cameroon, added, “ÉMERGENTS will help train a new generation of African scientists able to lead the fight against this disease.”

This project is supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under award number U19AI181594.

The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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May-June 2024

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