$100 million to fund JHU malaria lab

Anonymous gift to help establish research center

Donation ties record

Officials say money will support studies, attract top scientists

May 07, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University announced yesterday a gift of $100 million that should make its School of Public Health one of the leading centers for the study of malaria in the world.

The money, from an anonymous donor, is to be spent over the next decade, establishing and supporting the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute.

"Whoever gave this money can be assured that they have done something very special for work on a very important disease that afflicts and kills millions of people a year," said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy & Infectious Diseases.

This is the largest donation for a single purpose in Hopkins' history and equals the previous largest gift to the institution -- $100 million from financial news magnate Michael R. Bloomberg, chairman of the Hopkins board of trustees.

Two weeks ago, the school receiving his donation was named the Bloomberg School of Public Health in honor of his generosity. At last night's dinner of the board, a ceremony marked that renaming just before the new gift was announced.

"This money came from somebody who decided they wanted to make a real difference in the world," said Alfred Sommer, dean of the Bloomberg School. "We talked about the great unmet human needs in the world. AIDS always comes up, but you can never forget malaria."

The mosquito-borne blood parasite infects 500 million people a year, killing between 1 million and 2 million, most of them infants. But because it is mostly a problem found in poor countries, it draws little interest from drug companies looking for profitable products.

"The fact is nobody cares," said Bloomberg, a 1964 graduate of Hopkins. "That's too harsh, but it is difficult to get people interested in the problems of poor countries."

Sommer said the donor was clearly interested. "We didn't even have to explain it," he said. "You could see the person's interest perk up."

Bloomberg agreed. "I think it is fair to say the donor's eye lit up when Al [Sommer] explained the extent of the problem. Something like one out of every six people in the world carry this disease."

Asked if he was the donor, Bloomberg would only say, "We have agreed that this donor will remain anonymous."

Sommer said that the $100 million will probably lead to expenditures of two to three times that amount once scientists who are brought into the institute begin to attract funding for their research.

"What this gift does is give credibility to researchers willing to get involved in this sort of work," said William H. Foege, a professor at Emory University's public health school who advises the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "It used to be that working on malaria was a very quick way to short-circuit a career. Where were you going to get your funding?

"But this kind of work is an important way to spend your life," he said. "Someone willing to put up $100 million understands that."

Sommer said that the money will allow Hopkins to attract top scientists in the health care field, bringing to malaria research theories and techniques that have never been applied to this disease.

"Malaria is such a complicated disease, more complicated than HIV," said Diane E. Griffin, chairwoman of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School. "It has minimal funding compared to AIDS research even though it affects more people.

"The money gives us an opportunity to recruit more people who are not in the mainstream of malaria research into this area," she said. "They will bring new research ideas, approaches and techniques that really give us a tremendous opportunity to make a big impact."

Griffin will be the interim director of the institute -- which will be housed in her department -- during the search for a permanent director. She said she envisions an initial recruitment of about 10 to 12 researchers to join about five scientists now at Hopkins working on malaria.

Sommer does not anticipate that the work of the institute will eradicate malaria during the 10-year life span of this gift.

"Our more modest, but still audacious, goal is to at least come up with viable alternative vaccines and drugs, some effective new tools against the disease," he said.

Sommer said that if the program does reach the early testing stages of a new vaccine in a decade, "it would be a giant step for mankind.

"But even if we don't have a new prototype vaccine in 10 years, certainly we will have moved the goal posts enormously," he said. "The science will be far advanced."

Griffin said a vaccine is the only way to conquer the disease because its prevalence in poor countries makes it difficult to afford and to deliver medicines for a treatment regimen that could last years. A preventive vaccine -- administered once -- would be much more effective.

But, she said, this is a difficult task because no vaccine has ever been formulated against a protozoan parasite like malaria.

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