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Taking some new tacks—with risks attached—is what science is all about, says Peter Agre. “It’s been 100 years since we learned that mosquitoes spread malaria, and we still have a lot of work to do to understand it all,” he says. “Scientists try a lot of different things and see what works. We fail most of the time. But there’s a thought that if we can develop an Anopheles mosquito that is malaria resistant, we could breed malaria out of Africa. That’s a very practical place from which to do basic science.”
Agre won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2003 for research he led at Johns Hopkins (before leaving to serve for three years as a vice chancellor at Duke University) that identified aquaporins, the protein channels that ferry water through cells. His visibility—he is also president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest science group in the United States—made him attractive to Bloomberg School leaders last year when they were searching for someone to direct the institute and raise its profile. He had reasons of his own for taking them up on their offer.
“I was always a malaria wannabe, but I’d never really worked on it,” Agre says. “When I was growing up in the Norwegian Lutheran community in Minnesota, they had a medical missionary program made up of doctors and nurses who would travel off to Africa or Asia and open clinics. That’s what drew me to medicine. The idea of going to Africa or joining the World Health Organization—that’s why I came to Hopkins.” But a choice he made nearly 30 years ago between joining the Peace Corps in Uganda, where he would teach chemistry, or attending the School of Medicine derailed the international career he had envisioned. Now, he says, he spends parts of each year at the Johns Hopkins field station in Zambia.
Stateside, he has continued his research into aquaporins in animal and human cells and applied it to malaria, finding “some interesting information but hardly a cure for malaria,” he says. “But running my lab isn’t the main role I play here. My job is mainly to make sure we can accomplish good, basic science and get the funds needed for it.” Early on in what he hopes will be a long tenure as chief, Agre points to several achievements, including encouraging the National Institutes of Health to make sizable long-term grants through 2013 so that Johns Hopkins researchers can investigate the biological mechanisms that turn malaria’s transmission cycle.
“We’re in the same stage as scientists were with the polio epidemic, before that virus was isolated and Jonas Salk could make a vaccine. We’re dealing with very basic issues of science—and those aren’t very trendy with the public that funds them. My challenge as head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is to educate people as to why they should be concerned about Africa. These are countries that have lost many of their youngest people, their future. Their economies have been wrecked, or remain underdeveloped. We’ve been given the opportunity to help these other countries. Maybe if we can do that, they’ll end up being happier countries,” he says.
The field office in Zambia should help apply salve to a festering malarial region, he adds. One in five infants in Zambia never makes it to age 5, largely due to the disease. Although there have been signs in the last two years that the disease may be retreating in Africa, the malaria death rate during the early part of this decade was twice that of a generation ago. And drug resistance continues to follow people there as ardently as the most ravenous mosquito. There’s still a long, long way to go.
Agre also points to the wide-spectrum approach the institute takes to research as a sign of progress. The institute has given $100,000 pilot grants to researchers from across the campus, a practice it continues in hopes of drawing in more researchers from disparate disciplines. Grantees include researchers from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Medicine, and the Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s a trans-university program,” Agre says. It might also be the largest university-based malaria research program in the country.
That community has grown along with the institute’s financial support. When the institute was formed, the Bloomberg School had two malaria researchers; it now has 20. “We fulfill a role, maybe, in that we can encourage young researchers to investigate diseases in the developing world,” says Agre. “There has been a decreasing number of young Americans going into these research areas. They immediately see the trendy areas—neuroscience and the like—and say, ‘Why work on a disease far off in the developing world?’”
Although the institute would love to find a way to end the suffering wrought from the disease, Agre says scientists need to continue to better understand malaria and the many factors—bacteria, parasites, processes, proteins—that contribute to it. Its Anopheles-centered work may offer the best hope, if history is any guide. “Our mosquito work looks the most exciting right now,” Agre says. “In the past, controlling mosquitoes has yielded some results, though obviously not enough to end malaria.”
Michael Anft is Johns Hopkins Magazine’s senior writer.