UH malaria researchers awarded a Grand Challenges Explorations grant

The research team will study what triggers the end of the dormant stage in malaria and how this information could be used to eradicate the disease.

a bug

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant for malaria research to a research team at the University of Helsinki. The research team includes Professor of Agricultural Zoology Heikki Hokkanen of the Department of Applied Biology of the University of Helsinki, researcher Lena Huldén, researcher Ingeborg Menzler-Hokkanen, and Chief Curator Larry Huldén of the Finnish Museum of Natural History.

Malaria is one of the most lethal diseases in the world, but effective means to fight this disease have yet to be discovered. The Finnish team approaches the problem from a new angle.

Treatment at the right time

After a malaria infection, the parasite stays in the human blood system for as long as the mosquito species (also known as “vectors”) that spread the disease survive in nature. The parasite is dormant in the liver during the winter and then re-enters the blood system at an opportune time.

The Finnish team is interested in what triggers the end of the dormant stage: How does the parasite know that infection is possible again?

“The triggering factor is related to bites by mosquito species that are suited for spreading the disease. If we can identify the molecule combination serving as the trigger, we will be able to artificially induce a relapse at a time when mosquitoes are absent. We would then be able to treat malaria effectively under controlled circumstances, without fear of the disease spreading,” says Professor Hokkanen.

Finnish research data lend a new perspective

The research team’s findings are based on unique Finnish data on the occurrence of northern malaria (Plasmodium vivax). Lena Huldén used this data in her dissertation study, discovering that the number of malaria cases in Finland always peaked a few weeks after certain mosquito species appeared in the spring.

“Other types of malaria must have a similar dormant stage as northern malaria. If we succeed in artificially triggering malaria, we can effectively prevent the disease from spreading further,” Hokkanen says.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation granted a total of 76 awards in the third round of Grand Challenges Explorations. The grantees were selected from nearly 3,000 proposals.

More information on Grand Challenges Explorations grants » »

Text: Sanna Schildt
Photo: James Gathany

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