AT 11 A.M. ON the day before Thanksgiving, a sleepy Roland Cooper sits at his desk at Dominican University of California in San Rafael after an early morning flight from New Mexico.
Cooper, an associate professor of biology who joined the university in 2011, said, "I was giving a lecture at the University of New Mexico on the current scenario of drug resistance to malaria in Southeast Asia."
Assisted by a group of university students, Cooper, 50, is conducting research in the hope of keeping one step ahead of the blood parasite that causes malaria. The parasite is spread by mosquitoes.
The first effective drug to treat malaria, Chloroquine, came into use in the late 1940s, but by the 1950s resistant strains of the parasite began emerging. New, more effective drugs were developed, however, each time the parasite adapted and soon the treatments were less effective. Now strains resistant to the state-of-the-art treatment for malaria, artemether, have started to emerge.
"It's just been reported in the last few years," Cooper said, "and so far it's been confined to just Southeast Asia."
Although it has been eradicated in California, malaria remains one of the world's most lethal diseases. According to the World Health Organization, in 2010 there were approximately 219 million malaria cases and an estimated 660,000 malaria deaths. Most deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa among children under the age of 5 and pregnant women.
Cooper, who began doing malaria research in 1997 as a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, is now engaged in several different collaborative studies of the disease with a host of universities and institutes. In 2011, Cooper and colleagues from Portland State University, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and Drexel University were awarded a $3.56 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study acridone, a group of organic compounds that have demonstrated promise as anti-malarial drugs.
"Roland's team helps us by providing a mechanism for us to test new drugs," said Jane Kelly, a research professor at Portland State, who noted one child dies of malaria somewhere in the world every 40 seconds. "His work gives us a chance to see what parasites are resistant."
Cooper is also assisting in a University of California, San Francisco research study that is being conducted in Uganda. Cooper and other researchers are taking blood samples from Ugandans who have fallen ill with malaria. They then conduct tests on the blood samples to determine whether or not the malaria parasites in the blood have developed resistance to existing anti-malaria drugs.
"Uganda has some of the highest incidence of infectious mosquitoes," Cooper said. "The children there are bit about once every day by an infectious mosquito. A small child may experience six to eight episodes of malaria in one year."
Cooper has spent three of his last four summers in Uganda working on the project and expects to spend next summer there as well. He said the Ugandans he has met have expressed their gratitude.
"They think it is really neat that there are foreigners interested in studying their problems," Cooper said.
In his lab, Cooper tests prospective anti-malarial drugs to determine how the drug is affecting the parasite and to see how quickly the parasite will develop a resistance to the drug.
"If it's really, really easy to do that's a little bit discouraging," he said. "That might suggest the drug needs to be altered."
Recent research Cooper did in conjunction with Columbia University, the University of London, Princeton University and Penn State University yielded some intriguing results. The scientists discovered that one of the drug-resistant strains of the parasite developed in the lab displayed changes that were visible under the microscope, an unusual result.
"It is useful because it tells us something about the function of the target," Cooper said. "When parasites become resistant they pay a price. They're not as fit."
So what does Cooper's research have to say about the viability of acridone as a future anti-malaria drug? Cooper said the answer to the question will have to wait until a research paper now in the works is published, probably some time next year.
Randy Hall, chairman of the Natural Sciences and Mathematics department at Dominican, said Cooper's work has benefitted undergraduates at the university.
"He has a very nice research program and a large number of undergraduates are involved and take trips to Africa," said Hall, a 1974 Terra Linda High School graduate.
"He is always striving to get better and this type of work is really state of the art."