23 April 2021

Over the last 10 years NHMRC has invested more than $191 million in research on malaria1

Malaria remains a global health priority. According to the latest World malaria report 2020, there were 229 million cases of malaria in 2019. Children under 5 years of age are the most vulnerable group affected by malaria; in 2019 they accounted for 67 per cent of all malaria deaths worldwide.

Malaria has historically been endemic in Australia but was declared eradicated from the country in 1981. Although it is no longer endemic, approximately 700–800 cases occur each year in Australia in travellers who have been infected elsewhere.

In 2020 NHMRC committed $21,860,617.00 towards malaria research, including $10,210,422.00 in Ideas Grants and $10,788,416.00 in Investigator Grants.   

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Winner, NHMRC Science to Art Award 2011, Spooning | Eric Hanssen | University of Melbourne. Description: These structures are responsible for the export of the principal virulence factor of the parasite. This segmentation model was made with IMOD from an electron tomogram of a whole Plasmodium falciparum parasite. The rendering was done with Blender.

Professor Brendan Crabb AC, Director and CEO of the Burnet Institute was awarded a $2 million Investigator Grant for research drawing on a network of medicinal chemists, biologists and pharmacologists. The grant will improve the understanding of how the malaria parasite infects our body and how it avoids our immune system, providing new strategies to combat the disease. 

'Malaria is such an important and devastating disease that it has long shaped whole societies and economies, and even the human genome itself,' Professor Crabb said at the time when the Investigator Grants were announced.  

'There is a desperate need for new approaches to combat this deadly disease. There are few options left.'

Lynton Crabb with New Guinean children
Photo credit: Lynton Crabb

Professor Alan Cowman AC, Deputy Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research has spent his career looking to understand how the malaria parasite causes disease in order to find drug targets. Professor Cowman and his team are exploring the function of proteins responsible for cleaving and activating a cascade of proteins important in infection of humans and transmission of the parasite to mosquitoes. They will characterise the proteins involved in these critical events, as they are potential targets for drugs.

'The malaria parasite is incredibly smart for a single-celled organism. It has the ability to change so the immune response can’t actually see it—it becomes invisible,' Professor Cowman explained.

'Malaria is such an important disease globally and trying to develop new treatments is incredibly interesting. In the next 20-30 years it will be possible to eradicate.'

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Professor Alan Cowman and his team from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

There are many different aspects to consider in controlling malaria, not only in developing new treatments such as effective vaccines but also in ensuring continued efficacy of proven existing tools to prevent malaria, such as long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLINs) which are a cornerstone of malaria control. With more than 250 million LLINs distributed per year, they account for more than 50 per cent of the annual global malaria control budget.

A team led by Dr Stephan Karl from James Cook University was awarded an NHMRC Ideas Grant in 2020. Their study is aimed at understanding the causes and impacts of substandard LLINs on the regional and global malaria burden. 

LLIN undergo strict testing overseen by the World Health Organisation and are subject to inspections prior to delivery to recipient countries. Despite this, Dr Karl and his team, found that LLINs delivered to Papua New Guinea (PNG) between 2013 and 2019 were substantially less effective in killing malaria mosquitoes. Concurrently they observed a massive rise in malaria in PNG. 

The international team recently published a set of suggestions in the journal Trends in Parasitology about how to strengthen the quality assurance framework for LLINs in order to ensure that high quality products are procured and distributed to vulnerable communities in recipient countries. 

Find out more about NHMRC’s funding outcomes for malaria research.3

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Photo of Dr Stephan Karl’s team at Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research conducting WHO bioassays for our bed net project (front row left to right. Rebecca Vinit, Nakei Bubun, Michelle Katusele; back row left to right Muker Sakur, Lincoln Timinao, Peter Kaman)
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James Cook University researcher, Dr Melanie Koinari, preparing bed net samples for chemical analysis.

1 National Health and Medical Research Council
3 Word search ‘malaria’ and explore NHMRC’s 2020 funding outcomes via the Summary of the results of the NHMRC 2020 Grant Application Round download.