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UNC School of Medicine’s Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases has been awarded a $2.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to establish malaria genomic surveillance capacity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Dr. Jonathan Parr is the lead PI, with Dr. Jon Juliano and researchers in the Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Ecology Lab (IDEEL).

Jonathan Parr, MD, MPH

“Most of us carry minerals from the DRC in our phones and laptops everyday but don’t think about its people or the entirely treatable diseases they continue to suffer,” said Jonathan Parr, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases. “The DRC has one of the highest malaria burdens in the world. The World Health Organization estimated there were more than 30 million malaria cases and over 80,000 deaths in the DRC in 2021, mostly in young children.”

Accounting for 12% of global malaria cases, the DRC has one of the highest burdens of malaria in the world and seen limited new investments in malaria control and surveillance efforts, until recently. Progress against falciparum malaria is now threatened by the emergence and spread of resistance against the first-line treatment for malaria, artemisinin combination therapies (ACTs). Reports from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda over the last six years indicate a concerning emergence of mutations associated with drug resistance.

This grant award will support the establishment of the DRC PaluSeq (séquençage du paludisme) Program, a state-of-the-art country-wide monitoring program for antimalarial drug-resistance mutations. It will also build capacity for ongoing research in the DRC.

“This project provides an exciting opportunity to strengthen the DRC’s ability to identify and respond to dangerous, drug-resistant malaria strains that now threaten malaria control efforts across Africa,” Parr said. “UNC has a long history of impactful research in the DRC. I’m grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their support and delighted to continue working hand-in-hand with our partners to improve the lives of people living in the DRC.”

IDEEL researchers have closely collaborated with the DRC National Malaria Control Program (NMCP) and in-country partners for over 15 years and published many peer-reviewed papers. Together, the partnership produced the first national maps of malaria since 1951, used new sequencing approaches to study the evolution of drug-resistant parasites, and conducted longitudinal studies of malaria transmission, among other studies. However, much of this work has required sequencing and analysis in well-equipped laboratories outside the DRC.

The grant award will enable UNC researchers to establish the PaluSeq Program as a long-term malaria molecular surveillance collaboration with the NMCP, the Institute National de Recherche Biomédicale (INRB–the DRC’s premier biomedical research center with established next-generation viral sequencing expertise), the Kinshasa School of Public Health (KSPH), SANRU Asbl (the DRC’s largest malaria implementing partner) and Brown University (Bailey laboratory, department of pathology and laboratory medicine).

“The PaluSeq project will bring the DRC, one of the countries most affected by malaria, into the era of genomic surveillance of Plasmodium resistance to antimalarial drugs,” explained Dieudonne Mumba, MD, PhD, head of the INRB parasitology department and professor of microbiology at the University of Kinshasa. “In addition, it will help us train a generation of molecular biologists and bioinformaticians that the country so desperately needs.”

The team’s long-term goal is to establish operations that are led by a new generation of well trained, established scientists in the DRC. This grant supports one incoming UNC PhD student in genetics and molecular biology, which will help to build research capacity at the same time. Ronald Futila Kyong-shin, a rising star from the DRC, will join the UNC Biological & Biomedical Sciences Program (BBSP) program this Fall.

The Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases (IGHID) at the UNC School of Medicine is an engine for global health research and pan-university collaboration, transforming health in North Carolina and around the world. As the PI’s comprehensive partner, IGHID facilitates research excellence while providing opportunities for investigators to nurture emerging scientists through training and service, to achieve positive patient care outcomes and sustainable practice.