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$1.5M NIH grant to support malaria study

By : Rachel Coker

A $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund a new malaria study at Binghamton University. Scientists hope to understand how the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum evolved resistance to the once-effective medication chloroquine.

“Malaria is responsible for 1-3 million deaths a year, most of which are children under 5 in sub-Saharan Africa,” said J. Koji Lum, associate professor of anthropology and biological sciences, principal investigator for the grant. “This is equivalent to the death toll from the attacks of 9/11 every eight to 24 hours.”

Lum and Ralph Garruto, professor of biomedical anthropology and a co-investigator on the grant, together have about 11,000 archived human blood samples from malarious regions of the Pacific collected from the 1950s to the present. The samples will be analyzed and researchers will document the accumulation of genetic changes that resulted in chloroquine’s treatment failure in the Pacific.

Malaria is relatively easy to eliminate in places that have a good health-care infrastructure. In the developing world, particularly in the tropics, the disease is treated primarily through chemotherapy, Lum said.

The problem is that parasites develop resistance to the drugs over time. This study will help scientists understand how malaria parasites evolved resistance to chloroquine. They also hope to learn lessons that may be relevant to current treatments and their interactions with the disease. Ultimately, a better understanding of past episodes of drug resistance evolution will help doctors get the maximum possible impact from newer drugs.

Other studies have had to rely on theoretical modeling of resistant parasites to infer how they evolved. Lum and Garruto expect to be able to directly observe the accumulation of the nine mutations in the transporter gene that confer resistance to chloroquine. They’ll study parasites collected during the past 50 years and stored in the freezers of the NIH-BU Biomedical Anthropology archive.

“This funding will allow us to do a little bit of time traveling,” Lum said.

Gerald Sonnenfeld, vice president for research, said it’s rare for any researcher, but especially for a relatively young investigator, to win an NIH grant on the first try. Lum, who is 41, received his doctorate in 1995.

“This is a tremendous achievement for Dr. Lum because what he got was a successful award on his first submission to the NIH,” Sonnenfeld said. “His study on malaria could have a tremendous impact on our understanding of the disease.”

Lum considers malaria the most important infectious disease in human history. It continues to exact a devastating toll, in part because the resulting loss of education, work and young lives creates a cycle that makes it nearly impossible for nations to rise from poverty.

To eliminate malaria, countries must treat their entire populations, even asymptomatic adults. But there’s rarely enough money and medicine for developing nations to do that, Lum explained. Doctors focus their energies on the young, people who are clearly ill. Adults who have developed some level of immunity to malaria end up as reservoirs for parasites, continuing to spread the illness without ever feeling sick.

“Both the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation consider malaria, along with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, to be the three most important global health priorities,” Lum noted.

About J. Koji Lum

J. Koji Lum earned a doctorate in biomedical sciences from the University of Hawaii and a bachelor’s degree in genetics from the University of California at Berkeley. He did postdoctoral fellowships at the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics, University of Utah in Salt Lake City and the Institute of Statistical Mathematics in Tokyo. He was on the faculty at Tokyo Women’s Medical University before joining Binghamton’s faculty in 2003.

Lum, undergraduate director in the Anthropology Department, has a joint appointment in the Department of Biological Sciences and also serves on the Fulbright Evaluation Committee, the Clark Fellowship Committee and the Human Subjects Research Review Committee.

A Vestal resident, Lum was born in Hawaii and has lived in London, Virginia, Maryland, California, Utah and Japan, where his wife and two young daughters still reside.

Lum’s fieldwork has taken him to Cambodia, Laos, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Kenya and Micronesia. His research interests range from molecular anthropology of infectious diseases to phenotypes and genotypes in sexual behavior.

Lum finds Vanuatu fascinating, both because of the variety of organisms there and because of its cultural diversity. The beautiful, peaceful archipelago is home to some 200,000 people who speak more than 120 indigenous languages. Lum sees it as a possible model for diversity amid the pressures of globalization and hopes to continue various research projects there.

“How can you become part of the whole while maintaining your distinct cultural identity?” Lum asked. “That’s a question I’m drawn to and arguably one of the most import anthropological questions of the 21st century.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08