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Penn State Joins International Research

Penn State Joins International Research
Program to Study Malaria

State College, Penn.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University are teaming up with institutions in Thailand to study, and hopefully combat, one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. Although the rates of malarial infections in Thailand have decreased over the past two decades, the debilitating disease is still a major health problem, particularly in the more rural parts of that country.

Globally, more than 300 million people contract malaria from mosquito bites every year. Approximately 1.5 million die from the disease, and many of the survivors face a lifetime of poor health. Scientists have identified four species of malaria, but two — Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax — are responsible for the vast majority of infections.

“While major focus has been on P. falciparum, the most deadly of all malaria species, the burden of P. vivax has largely been neglected,” says Dr. Liwang Cui, assistant professor of entomology at Penn State. “In recent years, worldwide distribution of P. vivax has expanded significantly, and the number of cases has been on the rise.”

To counter the spread of the P. vivax species, Cui is working with researchers from Thailand’s Mahidol University and the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences, a joint U.S.-Thailand military organization that focuses on infectious diseases, to study the genome sequence of the microbe.

“Understanding how the parasites function, develop and survive will allow us to explore new vaccine and drug options,” says 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.”

The research team has already sequenced the genome for P. vivax, allowing Cui and his colleagues to uncover some new strategies to control its spread in regions of Thailand where the microbe thrives. In addition to the research program, Cui is working with another team of researchers that received a training grant from the Fogarty International Center of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The grant is aimed at training current students in the United States and Thailand to combat the disease.

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