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Every year, nearly half a billion people are infected with malaria, and every 30 seconds this ancient parasite kills a child.
David Sullivan hopes to discover the secret of malaria’s weak spot: hemozoin, an iron-containing crystal inside the parasite. Scientists know that two types of widely used drugs—quinolines and the artemisinins—interact with hemozoin to kill the parasite. Better understanding those interactions, Sullivan believes, could be key to developing new and more effective malaria-fighting drugs.
“David brings a unique combination of infectious diseases clinician and molecular parasitologist to the area of malaria research,” says Diane Griffin, MD, PhD, chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. “His work on the role of metal metabolism in the malaria parasite will inform drug design as well as our understanding of basic biological processes in this important human pathogen.”
For his part, Sullivan says the biggest motivator of his research efforts is making discoveries that can help patients.
With colleagues at the School, its Malaria Research Institute, and Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), he helped develop a mass-spectrometry-based technique for detecting the malaria parasite that is more sensitive and can deliver results much more quickly than traditional tests. This system received the 2002 Invention of the Year Award from APL (page 8).
And with researchers in the School of Medicine’s Pharmacology Department, Sullivan is putting together a library of FDA-approved drugs and screening for their ability to inhibit the malaria parasite. “If someone finds a drug that targets an important enzyme in the [malaria] parasite, the drug still has to go through all the research and development, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars,” Sullivan explains. Deploying an existing drug against malaria, he says, would eliminate the need for a slew of expensive studies, saving both time and money.