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Jan. 26, 2017

NIH awards MSU researcher $8.4 million to develop first malaria treatments

While the world waits for a vaccine against the ancient disease malaria, Terrie Taylor is working to save the lives of children who are currently afflicted by the deadliest form of the disease.

Taylor, MSU University Distinguished Professor of internal medicine and an osteopathic physician, will use an $8.4 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, to build on her groundbreaking research that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015.

Taylor and her team discovered children with cerebral malaria develop massively swollen brains that are forced out through the bottom of the skull and compress the brain stem. The pressure causes the children to stop breathing and die.

“Because we now know that brain swelling is the likely cause of death, we can focus on identifying new treatments,” Taylor said. “One intervention we will evaluate uses ventilators to breathe for the children. We know from studying children who have survived cerebral malaria that the brain swelling does go down after a few days. This tells me that if we can help them breathe, they may survive. It may be that simple to save children’s lives.”

The second treatment Taylor will test is a saline solution to potentially shrink the brain swelling. Though medical researchers have developed effective drugs to kill the malaria parasite, efforts to treat the effects of the disease have been unsuccessful. If Taylor’s treatments are successful they will be the first developed for cerebral malaria.

MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said the grant will allow Taylor to continue her mission to save children’s lives.

“We are grateful to NIH for their support for this critically important research. Dr. Taylor and her team will now be able to use their discoveries about how malaria kills to develop treatments that will spare more families in Africa and beyond from its most tragic effects.”

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. As reported in the WHO World Malaria Report 2016, malaria killed an estimated 303,000 children under 5 years of age globally, including 292,000 in the African region.

“Cerebral malaria kills a child every two minutes,” 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.”

Taylor and team will conduct their next phases of research in Malawi's first pediatric surgery and intensive care unit scheduled to open in April. The new facility is being built by Raising Malawi, an organization founded by pop legend Madonna.

Taylor’s battle against malaria, which she refers to as the “Voldemort of parasites,” has been waged since 1986. She has spent six months of every year in the African nation of Malawi, conducting malaria research and treating children.

By: Kim Ward