Rosenkranz Prize winner hopes to develop malaria vaccine for pregnant women

Prasanna Jagannathan said the $100,000 prize will allow his lab team to ramp up their research in Uganda.

- By Beth Duff-Brown

Prasanna Jagannathan (left) received the 2018 Rosenkranz Prize, which he hopes to use to develop a malaria vaccine for pregnant women. The prize was established by Ricardo Rosenkranz (right) and his family in honor of the late chemist George Rosenkranz.
Beth Duff-Brown

Malaria claims nearly a half-million lives worldwide each year, yet scientists still know little about the immunology of the disease that has plagued humanity for thousands of years.

There were 216 million cases in 2016, according to the World Health Organization. Sub-Saharan Africa carries 80 percent of the global burden of this mosquito-borne infectious disease, which devastates families, disrupts education and promotes the cycle of poverty.

It is particularly brutal to pregnant women, who are three times more likely to suffer from a severe form of the disease, leading to lower birthweight among their children and higher rates of miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth.

“Pregnant women and their unborn children are more susceptible to the adverse consequences of malaria, so we are working to investigate new strategies and even lay the foundation for a vaccine to prevent malaria in pregnancy,” said Prasanna Jagannathan, MD, an assistant professor of medicine and this year’s recipient of the Dr. George Rosenkranz Prize for Health Care Research in Developing Countries.

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Stanford Health Policy give the $100,000 prize each year to a young Stanford researcher who is trying to improve health care in underserved countries. It was established in 2009 by the family of George Rosenkranz, PhD, a chemist who first synthesized cortisone in 1951, and later progesterone, the active ingredient in birth control pills.

Jagannathan, an infectious disease specialist who is also a member of Stanford’s Child Health Research Institute, said the prize will allow his lab members to ramp up their research in Uganda. His team is particularly interested in how strategies that prevent malaria might actually alter the development of natural immunity to malaria.

“With support from the Rosenkranz Prize, we hope to identify maternal immune characteristics and immunologic targets that are associated with protection of malaria in pregnancy and infancy,” Jagannathan said.

Goal: Vaccine for pregnant women

Jagannathan and his collaborators at the University of California-San Francisco and in Uganda are currently conducting a randomized controlled trial of 782 Ugandan women who are receiving intermittent preventive treatment with a fixed dose of dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine, or IPTp-DP, a medication that has dramatically reduced the risk of maternal parasitemia, anemia and placental malaria. Their preliminary data suggests that among 684 infants born to these women, maternal receipt of IPTp-DP may lead to a reduced incidence of malaria in the first year of life.

“Having the discretionary support of the Rosenkranz Prize will allow us to generate some preliminary ideas from this trial that could lead to larger studies to push this agenda further along,” Jagannathan said.

That agenda is to create a vaccine that prevents malaria in pregnant women and by extension, their infants, giving them a better start in life.

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