Malaria is the world’s most important tropical parasitic disease and is transmitted through the bite of female mosquitoes. There are four species of the parasite that cause malaria in humans. One of these, Plasmodium falciparum, causes the majority of infections and can lead to death if left untreated. Each year, 300-500 million malaria infections lead to more than 1 million deaths, of which more than 75 percent occur in African children. Malaria causes 1 in 5 of all childhood deaths in Africa.

Despite over a century of work to control or eradicate this disease, malaria continues to take its devastating toll, largely in developing nations. Nearly 40% of the world's population lives in affected regions. The emergence of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes and drug-resistant malarial parasites has made the situation much worse. Economists believe that the GDP (gross domestic product) of African governments is reduced by $12 billion annually due to malaria.

Malaria is a complex disease that affects different organs and tissues and takes different forms. Severe malaria of childhood can present as severe malaria anemia (extremely low red blood cell numbers) or cerebral malaria (deep coma). Non-immune adults are susceptible to both of  these complications, in addition to multi-organ failure. A particularly severe form of malaria occurs only in pregnant mothers due to infected erythrocyte sequestration in the placenta that harms both mother and fetus.


Malaria is characterized by fever, shivering, pain in the joints, headache and repeated vomiting. The parasite lives in red cells and eventually ruptures them, creating anemia. Severe anemia is often the cause of death in areas with intense malaria transmission. If left untreated, the disease progresses to severe malaria and results in convulsions and coma. Severe malaria often causes death if there is no treatment.

Seattle BioMed's Role

With nearly 100 scientists focused solely on malaria, our Institute is home to one of the largest malaria research programs in the United States. Study of this complex parasite has led our researchers to fundamental discoveries of the genetic framework and molecular biology of the most virulent malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. As part of a broad global initiative to fight malaria, Seattle BioMed developed its malaria program in 2000, with an initial grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

With a three-pronged approach, our malaria scientists are focused on vaccine discovery for pregnancy malaria, severe malaria in children and liver-stage malaria. The malaria program relies on emerging technologies for genome-wide analysis and the recently completed genomic DNA sequence of P. falciparum. In 2005, Seattle BioMed received two Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health grants to accelerate its malaria research. Out of 43 grants awarded worldwide, only two organizations received two awards: Seattle BioMed and Harvard University. In 2010, Seattle BioMed began testing a vaccine designed by Stefan Kappe, Ph.D., and opened a Malaria Clinical Trials Center for testing new treatments and vaccines.