Published: Nov. 5, 2015

Taking the next step to save children dying from malaria

Contact(s): Kim Ward Communication and Brand Strategy office: (517) 432-0117 cell: (734) 658-4250

When Terrie E. Taylor, an internationally recognized physician and scientist, and her team discovered that massively swollen brains cause death in children with cerebral malaria, the deadliest form of the disease, it was an extraordinary first step toward finally saving children. Now Taylor and her colleagues are preparing to take the next crucial step.

With a $500,000 grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Taylor will begin investigating what is causing the brains to swell, which is the next phase in developing treatments.

“We know from previous autopsies that the children’s brains are jam packed with red blood cells that contain malaria parasites,” Taylor said. “Those parasite-laden red cells cling very tightly to the inner lining of the blood vessels in the brain and somehow produces massive swelling that compresses the brain stem and causes the children to stop breathing and die.”

The study will be a collaborative effort between clinical investigators at Michigan State University, the University of Malawi College of Medicine and the Center for Excellence in Vascular Biology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

“Only half of the children with cerebral malaria have swollen brains -- we hypothesize that the brain swelling is a defense mechanism that’s gone awry against this insidious parasite,” Taylor said. “So we will study both sides of the equation – the parasite side and the human side --- from patients with and without brain swelling. This study should provide a greater understanding of the mechanisms at work and provide direction on therapies to defeat this scourge.”

While increased efforts targeting malaria elimination and eradication have had some effect on malaria infection and illness, death rates from malaria are still too high, Taylor said.

“Too many kids are still dying,” Taylor said. “We, as a global community, should be concerned and support efforts to save these children even as we try to eradicate the disease.”