The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded a five-year contract of up to $19.4 million, depending on contract options exercised, to establish the Malaria Host-Pathogen Interaction Center (MaHPIC).
The consortium includes researchers at Emory University, with partners at the University of Georgia (UGA), the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University will administer the contract.
The MaHPIC team will use the comprehensive research approach of systems biology to study and catalog in molecular detail how malaria parasites interact with their human and animal hosts. This knowledge will be fundamental to developing and evaluating new diagnostic tools, antimalarial drugs and vaccines for different types of malaria. The project will integrate data generated by malaria research, functional genomics, proteomics, lipidomics and metabolomics cores via informatics and computational modeling cores.
MaHPIC combines Emory investigators' interdisciplinary experience in malaria research, metabolomics, lipidomics and human and non-human primate immunology and pathogenesis with UGA's expertise in pathogen bioinformatics and large database systems, and Georgia Tech's experience in mathematical modeling and systems biology. The CDC will provide support in proteomics and malaria research, including nonhuman primate and vector/mosquito infections.
The principal investigator is Mary Galinski, PhD, professor of medicine, infectious diseases and global health at Emory University School of Medicine and director of Emory's International Center for Malaria Research, Education & Development (ICMRED). She has been leading malaria research projects at the Emory Vaccine Center and Yerkes for 15 years.
"We are thankful to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for recognizing the enormous potential of taking a systems biology approach to studying malaria infections," Galinski says.
"This project will help us better understand malaria as a disease in depth and pave the way for new preventive and therapeutic measures. We expect to provide a groundbreaking wealth of information that will address current challenges in fighting malaria. The Georgia team we have assembled is outstanding and we also look forward to working closely with prominent international partners from malaria endemic countries."
A prestigious international Scientific Consultation Group is also involved, and met with the MaHPIC team at Emory recently, following the annual American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene conference held in Atlanta.
The MaHPIC project involves studying both nonhuman primate infections and clinical samples from humans around the world. For the study of malaria, "systems biology" means first collecting comprehensive data on how a Plasmodium parasite infection produces changes in host and parasite genes, proteins, lipids, the immune response and metabolism.
Computational researchers will then design mathematical models to simulate and analyze what's happening during an infection and to find patterns that predict the course of the disease and its severity. Together, the insights will help guide the development of new interventions. Co-infections and morbidities will also come into play, as well as different cultural and environmental backgrounds of the communities involved.
The team will use metabolomics techniques that will allow scientists to detect, analyze and make crucial associations with thousands of chemicals detectable in the blood via mass spectrometry. The techniques were developed at Emory by Dean Jones, PhD, professor and director of the Clinical Biomarkers Laboratory and MaHPIC's metabolomics core leader.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to integrate multiple types of rich biological data into dynamic models that will help scientists around the world devise novel strategies to help control not just malaria but other infectious diseases," says Greg Gibson, PhD, professor and director of the Center of Integrative Genomics at Georgia Tech.
"MaHPIC will generate experimental, clinical and molecular data associated with malaria infections in nonhuman primates on an unprecedented scale," says Jessica Kissinger, PhD, who will direct the project's informatics team. Kissinger is professor of genetics at UGA and director of UGA's Institute of Bioinformatics.
"In addition to mining the massive quantities of integrated data for trends and patterns that may help us understand host and pathogen interaction biology, we may identify potential targets for early and species-specific diagnosis of malaria, which is critical for proper treatment," Kissinger says.
The MaHPIC team will develop an informative public website and specialized web portal to share the project's data and newly developed data analysis tools with the scientific community worldwide.
"The sheer amount of detailed, high-quality information amassed by the experimental groups will be unprecedented. With this project we have an incredible opportunity to integrate data with modern computational tools of dynamic modeling," says Eberhard Voit, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering and cofounder of the Integrative BioSystems Institute at Georgia Tech. "This integration will allow us to analyze the complex networks of interactions between hosts and parasites in a manner never tried before. Systems biology will be the foundation for this integration."