Health Check: Malaria research aims to prevent disease's progression

Mosquitoes are seen inside a stock cage in a mosquito labaratory at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London. (AP Photo)

Dr. Jonathan Kurtis is not only the principle investigator in malaria research at Rhode Island Hospital, he's a survivor of the disease.

Kurtis got it when he was visiting Africa.

"You get cascading waves of fever, bone pain, myalgia, chills. It feels horrible," he said.

In some cases, it can affect your brain.

Kurtis embarked on the research with his wife, Dr. Jennifer Friedman.

"When you consider how we will become embroiled in conflicts where people are unhappy, and you're going to be unhappy if a quarter of your children are dying. It's really a phenomenal killing machine," Kurtis said.

It starts with a mosquito bite that unleashes a parasite which eventually infects red blood cells.

The research began in 2002 in Muheza, Tanzania, one of the highest risk areas for malaria in the world.

Almost 1,000 children were enrolled in the study and were monitored very closely. Researchers pulled and analyzed the blood plasma from 10 children who were very resistant to severe malaria and 10 children who were very susceptible to the disease.

"And then we did something I call DNA gymnastics," Kurtis said.

Through some fancy molecular biology, researchers were looking for the answer to the following question:

"What parasite genes encode parasite proteins that are only recognized by antibodies in the resistant kids sera but are not recognized by the antibodies that are in the susceptible kids sera," Kurtis said.

Researchers looked at 2 million genes and over time, narrowed it down to three. One of the genes, is the subject of Kurtis's work.

"It's called schizont egree antigen-1," he said.

They took the SEA-1 protein and validated in the lab. Post-doctoral fellow Dipak Raj took antibodies to the protein.

"And he added those antibodies to parasites in culture and he was watching, I say, their screams of anguish when the antibody lands on the parasite. It can't grow well. That was exciting," Kurtis said.

From there, the antibody was tested on mice. Another success, and then back to the field.

"We went back to the entire cohort of 1,000 kids almost and we measured antibodies to SEA. Children who had antibodies to SEA had zero cases of severe malaria. That was pretty cool," Kurtis said. "So it seems to control parasite density and therefore reduce the incidents almost to zero of severe malaria at least in this subset of children."

Kurtis said the research doesn't look to prevent the disease, but to prevent its progression.

The research was recently published in the journal Science.

Many other researchers were involved from NIH, Brown University, Boston Children's Hospital, Harvard University and the University of Washington in Seattle.