Tim Anderson, Ph.D., a scientist in the Department of Genetics at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, has been designated a Health Care Hero by the San Antonio Business Journal. The annual award honors leaders in the city’s health care and biomedical fields. All 18 awardees for 2013 will be recognized at a reception tonight at the McNay Art Museum.
“We are extremely proud of Tim for his groundbreaking work on resistance to malaria treatments in Southeast Asia. It is changing the global approach to fighting this disease,” said Kenneth P. Trevett, Texas Biomed’s president and CEO.
Sarah Williams-Blangero, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Genetics, said: “Tim’s novel research program is highly productive and is yielding new insights into why malaria, one of the world’s major public health problems, is so difficult to control. He brings the power of a strong research team here in San Antonio and an outstanding network of collaborators from countries in which malaria has a devastating impact to the battle to understand the changing efficacy of malarial drug treatments.”
Malaria killed 655,000 people — more than one per minute — in 2010. While these numbers are high, malaria deaths have declined by 30 percent over the past decade, largely because of treatment with combination therapies containing artemisinin, a plant-derived antimalarial drug developed in China.
However, Anderson and his collaborators recently documented the emergence of resistance to artemisinin in western Thailand which represents a critical problem in global efforts to control the disease. They also found a major region of the malaria parasite genome associated with resistance, raising the hope that there will soon be effective molecular markers for monitoring the spread of resistance.
In a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, Anderson’s team and their collaborators in Thailand studied 3,202 patients in clinics in Northwestern Thailand. From 2001 until 2010, they observed a dramatic decline in the potency of artemisinin. By measuring drug potency in patients infected with genetically identical malaria parasites, they were able to show that the decline in potency results from the spread of resistance genes.
The spread of drug resistant malaria parasites from Southeast Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa occurred previously. During the 1970s, the drugs chloroquine and fansidar lost potency. This resulted in a resurgence of disease and the collapse of political will to combat malaria. Should history repeat itself for artemisinin resistance, this would be a public health disaster resulting in millions of deaths. Thus, there is enormous urgency to generate the tools needed to combat the spread of drug resistance.
In a second study published in the journal Science, the Anderson team examined the genetic changes that occur in these drug resistant parasites. This study narrows the search to a region of the parasite genome containing around 10 genes. Identification of a molecular marker for resistance will be critical for monitoring the spread of resistance, determining how resistance occurs, and understanding artemisinin’s mechanism of action. This is an important advance in the race to avert a global public health crisis.
Anderson’s group compared the genomes of parasites from Laos, which are sensitive to the drug, with parasites from Cambodia, which show high levels of resistance, and those from Thailand, where both resistant and sensitive parasites occur. They found that 33 genome regions were very different in the parasites collected from these three countries. When they examined these regions in more detail in a large collection of parasites from Thailand, they found that one small section of the malaria parasite’s chromosome 13 is strongly associated with parasite resistance.
Anderson’s laboratory is also conducting ground breaking work on drug resistance in another important human parasite, the blood fluke causing schistosomiasis. These parasites, which utilize a snail as an intermediate host, infect more than 200 million people in South America, Asia and Africa. This work focuses on understanding the genetic basis of resistance to the drug oxamniquine.
For its achievements during over a decade of work on the evolution and spread of resistance to antimalarial drugs, Anderson’s laboratory was recognized in 2012 by a MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health. This extends his laboratory’s currently active five-year, $3 million grant for this work by an additional three to five years (until 2019-2021) without peer review. The prestigious MERIT award program extends funding for experienced researchers who have made a significant and sustained impact in a high priority research area and is a symbol of scientific achievement in the research community.
Texas Biomed, formerly the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, is one of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions dedicated to advancing health worldwide through innovative biomedical research. Located on a 200-acre campus on the northwest side of San Antonio, Texas, the Institute partners with hundreds of researchers and institutions around the world, targeting advances in the fight against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, psychiatric disorders, problems of pregnancy, AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, parasitic infections and a host of other diseases. For more information on Texas Biomed, go to www.TxBiomed.org.