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Megabucks for Malaria

Chalk up another big gift for an American university. An anonymous donor has given Johns Hopkins University $100 million to fund a new research center specifically aimed at developing malaria drugs and vaccines.

Mosquito-borne Plasmodium parasites cause a half-billion cases of malaria--and more than a million deaths--each year worldwide. No workable vaccine exists, and many current antimalarial drugs are becoming ineffective as Plasmodium strains build resistance. Malaria is a problem predominantly in poor countries, however, so pharmaceutical companies looking to turn a profit have chosen to fight other, more lucrative diseases. As a result, funding for basic research on malaria has been scarce.

Now, the field has been given a $100 million shot in the arm, Johns Hopkins officials announced yesterday. The anonymous donor approached the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health expressing a desire to "make a real difference in the world," according to Bloomberg dean Alfred Sommer. In discussions with school representatives about the direst threats to public health, the philanthropist's eyes lit up when the topic turned to malaria. Putting money into "underfunded research and a high-risk, high-reward strategy" was appealing to the donor, Sommer says.

The school will use the money to recruit 12 top scientists from fields including bioinformatics, entomology, and immunology to apply what they know to the malaria problem. The donation will also support common facilities and infrastructure for the new research programs.

The effort's target is a prototype vaccine or radically new drug against malaria. But even if that doesn't happen in the 7 to 10 years over which the money will be spent, "we will be closer to the goal," Sommer says. "It's wonderful," adds Myron Levine of the University of Maryland's Center for Vaccine Development in Baltimore. "Malaria research has been starving for serious funds."

Related sites

Press release from Johns Hopkins
The Bloomberg School of Public Health