World Malaria Day Event Draws Premier Bay Area Researchers

Richard Feachem speaks at a Malaria Day event at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital
Richard Feachem, DSc(Med), PhD, director of UC San Francisco’s Global Health Group, speaks to a gathering of more than 100 members of the malaria research community in the Bay Area to celebrate World Malaria Day on April 25. Photo by Barbara Ries

Mortality rates for malaria, an age-old disease transmitted by mosquitos, have fallen globally by nearly 30 percent since 2010. Yet nearly half of the world’s population is still at risk of malaria and in 2016, the disease struck 216 million people and resulted in 445,000 deaths worldwide.

Indeed, the letters that represent World Malaria Day, WMD, could also describe the still-present danger of malaria as a “weapon of mass destruction,” said Sir Richard Feachem, DSc(Med), PhD, director of UC San Francisco’s Global Health Group.

Feachem’s remarks opened a gathering of more than 100 members of the malaria research community in the Bay Area to celebrate World Malaria Day on April 25 at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. The group discussed challenges, opportunities and progress in the fight for malaria elimination and control with leading researchers from UCSF, UC Berkeley, Stanford University and Chan Zuckerberg Biohub.

Feachem cited recent accomplishments, including the sustained elimination of malaria from Sri Lanka, formerly one of the most malaria-affected countries, and the report of zero malaria transmissions within China in 2017, as reasons to be optimistic.

“We’ve come along long way in the last two decades,” said Feachem.

In April 2018, the Lancet announced UCSF would lead a newly launched Commission on Malaria Eradication, led by Feachem.

Researchers from UCSF, UC Berkeley, Stanford University and Chan Zuckerberg Biohub gather for World Malaria Day at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Photo by Barbara Ries

Feachem also leads the Malaria Elimination Initiative (MEI), which aims to collaborate with malaria-affected countries and regions to study, understand, and develop solutions – like gene editing – to eliminate malaria.

More broadly, the goal of malaria work at UCSF is to control and to eliminate malaria worldwide through advancing surveillance, prevention and interventions.

For many researchers, the beginning of the end of malaria is understanding the life cycle of Plasmodium falciparum. “We aim to understand the biology of malaria parasites,” said Phil Rosenthal, MD, professor of medicine and associate chief of the Division of HIV, ID and Global Medicine and an expert in antimalarial drug discovery. “If you understand biology, you develop better drugs.”

Rosenthal, an expert in antimalarial drug discovery, is celebrating a 20-year partnership with Moses Kamya of Makerere University in Uganda.

“You can see the impact of our work,” said Grant Dorsey, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and longtime collaborator with Rosenthal. “Kids are getting less sick and they're able to go to school.”

Last year, Dorsey – who leads an NIH-funded International Center of Excellence for Malaria Research (ICEMR) – received funding for his project, Program for Resistance, Immunology, Surveillance and Modeling of Malaria in Uganda (PRISM) for seven years at about $1 million annually to support this aim of understanding the biology of malaria. 

Phil Rosenthal, MD, professor of medicine and associate chief of the Division of HIV, ID and Global Medicine, takes questions during the Malaria Day event. Photo by Barbara Ries

To improve surveillance, Bryan Greenhouse, MD, associate professor of medicine and Chan Zuckerberg Biohub investigator, is developing tools that will allow for identification of where transmission is ongoing.

“The more data we have, the more we can predict where things will go,” said Greenhouse.

Rosenthal believes the Bay Area – and UCSF in particular – is the place to be for world-class malaria research.

“There is more depth and breadth of malaria research in the Bay Area than any other region in the U.S.,” said Rosenthal.

The World Malaria Day forum also featured exciting work from UCSF researchers Joe DeRisi, PhD; Greenhouse, MD; Christine Sheridan Moore; Isabel Rodriguez-Barraquer, MD, PhD; Allison Tatarsky, MPH; and Wesley Wu, PhD.