RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Few infectious diseases can rival malaria's ability to kill and cripple. Each year the disease causes hundreds of millions of people to be sickened and more than a million — mostly African children under the age of five — die.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the announcement of the genome sequence of the deadly human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum and its mosquito vector Anopheles.
A new book on malaria — "The Malaria Genome Projects: Promise, Progress, and Prospects" (Imperial College Press, 2012) — tells the story of how the Plasmodium falciparum Genome Project came into being, the people who created it, and the vast cadre of scientists attempting to realize the promise of the 10-year-old project.
"I wrote this book — the fourth one on malaria since my retirement — for those who want to know more about the biology of malaria parasites and the mosquitoes that transmit the disease," said Irwin W. Sherman, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of California, Riverside and the book's author. "This book brings us to the present with regard to malaria research."
Sherman said he approached the topic in an historic fashion to give those new to the field, or those with insufficient background, an easier entry point.
"Through this approach even those already in the field may better appreciate how discoveries made in the past can impact the direction of future malaria research," said Sherman, currently a visiting scientist at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.
He explained that to decode the genome — the entire sequence of genes — of Plasmodium falciparum took six years of effort by a multinational team of scientists.
"The hope of this new breed of 'gene hunters' was that cracking the life code of Plasmodium falciparum would reveal the novel biochemical Achilles' heel of the parasite and lead to the development of antimalarial drugs and vaccines," Sherman said.
The grand promise of the Plasmodium falciparum Genome Project, he added, was that a more complete understanding of the malaria parasite's genes would allow a better understanding of the regulation of the parasite's complex life cycle in human red blood and liver cells, identify those genes the parasite uses to thwart the host immune response, and explain the manner by which it is possible for the parasite to evade cure after drug treatments.
To write the 372-page book, Sherman combed through the literature on malaria-related topics with a critical eye. He then turned all the information into a digestible form for readers interested in science.
Sherman received his master's and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University, Ill., where his lifelong research on the biochemistry of malaria parasites began. He joined UC Riverside in 1962 and retired in 2006. During his tenure, he served as chair of the Department of Biology (1973-1978); dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (1981-1988); acting executive vice chancellor (1993-1994); and chair of the Academic Senate (1997-2004).
The author or coauthor of more than 150 scholarly papers and 7 books, Sherman also has edited two books on malaria. His book, "The Power of Plagues" (American Society for Microbiology Press, 2006), examined the interrelationship between plagues and culture. His book "Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World" (American Society for Microbiology Press, 2007) focused on a dozen diseases that greatly influenced society, politics and culture.
Sherman believes he has thoroughly studied and documented the story of malaria and the quest for a vaccine.
"I suspect if I write anything else it will be an autobiography to be left for my children so they can know what I did for the past 50 years," he said.
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