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NIH Supports Cooper's Malaria Research

Roland Cooper, assistant professor of biological sciences at Old Dominion University, is one of three researchers who will share in a $1.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the drug resistance of Plasmodium falciparum, the lethal human malaria parasite.

The principal investigator on the grant is Michael Ferdig of the University of Notre Dame. Cooper and Paul Roepe of Georgetown University are co-principal investigators. Their project, "Determinants of Growth and Fitness in Drug Resistant Malaria Parasites," will be funded beginning this spring and extend over five years.

"We will be studying how 60 years of intense drug pressure has reshaped the genome of P. falciparum, which kills about 1 million people each year, mainly children in sub-Saharan Africa," said Cooper.

The malaria parasite infects the red blood cells of its host and is transmitted from person-to-person by mosquitoes. No vaccine for malaria exists, and the lack of affordable, effective drugs for people of developing countries is the main reason for the large numbers of annual deaths.

"Roland Cooper's malarial drug resistance work is significant and timely and is evidence of ODU's expanding research portfolio in lifespan biology," said Mohammad Karim, ODU's vice president for research.

The three researchers have collaborated for a decade and produced numerous publications on aspects of drug resistance in human malaria, Cooper said. The team will use new approaches such as complete genome hybridizations and quantitative trait mapping to reveal the gene networks that confer physiological adaptations in the parasite in response to drug pressure.

Drug resistance mutations can decrease parasite fitness when the drug is actually not present, but the parasite bounces back, Cooper said. "The plasticity of the parasite's unique genome allows it to quickly adapt and thrive. A thorough understanding of the biology of the multi-drug resistant malaria parasite will allow more rationale approaches to clinical drug therapy and development in the future."

This project for Cooper follows a career development award that he received from NIH for malaria drug research as well as a post-doctoral fellowship that he served in the NIH's malaria genetics division. He received his doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Arizona in 1996 and the next year he returned to the classroom at Harvard University to earn a master's in tropical public health. He joined the ODU faculty in 2003.

Two of Cooper's graduate students at ODU, Carmony Hartwig and Jennifer Spence, won national awards from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2006-2007 for their studies of the antimalarial drug artemisinin. Compounds such as artemisinin have been used for centuries against malaria, but scientists still do not have a good understanding of how it kills the parasite. Furthermore, according to Cooper, as use of artemisinin grows, parasite resistance to it is likely to emerge as well.

This article was posted on: April 10, 2008

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