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University of Washington initiative awarded $9.3M to fight deadly malaria strains in India

UW Chemistry Professor and Director of the MESA Dr. Pradipsinh Rathod, left, with Laura Chery, Associate Director of the MESA. (University of Washington Photo / Dennis Wise)

Viruses are constantly changing. That’s the reason last year’s flu shot isn’t as effective against this year’s flu — the virus has evolved to resist it.

The same is true for malaria, but unlike the flu, malaria is one of the most deadly infectious diseases in the world, and it’s becoming resistant to the lifesaving drugs that can cure it.

Fighting drug-resistant malaria is one goal of the University of Washington’s Malaria Evolution in South Asia initiative (MESA), an international collaboration and one of the 10 International Centers of Excellence for Malaria Research. The center announced Tuesday it has received $9.3 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health to continue its work.

The center is directed by Pradipsinh K. Rathod, a UW chemistry professor, and includes researchers from the UW, Harvard University, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Stanford University, as well as hundreds of clinicians and field researchers at six sites in India.

“India is a country of critical importance for understanding the spread of virulent malaria globally,” Rathod said in a press release. “While most deaths caused by drug-resistant strains of malaria have occurred in Africa, most drug-resistant parasites arise first in Asia.”

“By getting a clearer picture of malaria in India, we’re ‘closing the gap’ on how this complex parasite behaves globally,” he said.

The frontline treatment for malaria used to be a drug called chloroquine. But about a decade ago, the virus began to develop a resistance to the drug, rendering it almost useless. Today’s frontline treatment is a drug called artemisinin, but strains of the virus resistant to that drug have already been found in Southeast Asia. If that virus spreads through India to Africa, it could be a major public health crisis, and it’s the job of the UW initiative to monitor and try to prevent that spread.

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