Global Health Facts : Someone in the world is newly infected with TB bacilli every second.

Infectious Diseases

Notre Dame researchers are designing and synthesizing new antibiotics to wipe out infectious diseases, such as AIDS, TB, malaria, and leishmaniasis, as well as discovering treatments for rare diseases overlooked by the drug companies.

The Haiti Program at Notre Dame

Rev. Thomas Streit, CSC, has received international acclaim for working among impoverished Haitians to halt the spread of a parasitic disease, called lymphatic filariasis (LF). The Haiti Program collaborates with the Centers for Disease Control and Haitian Ministry of Public Health.

Funding: $5.2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"I challenge people to come up with another disease so tied to poverty. This is a country where killer diseases—like AIDS—get all the attention." -Rev. Thomas G. Streit, formerly a postdoctoral fellow in biology with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Novel sustainable genetic approaches to research on malaria

Malaria continues to kill people at an alarming rate, as it has for centuries. Each year, more than 1 million children die from malaria in Africa alone in spite of the World Health Organization having slated malaria for global eradication decades ago. One reason for the pronounced resurgence of this disease throughout the sub-tropical world is the emergence of drug resistant Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest malaria parasite.

Molecular evolutionary genetics of mosquitoes

What makes certain mosquitoes effective transmitters of malaria? The feature that sets Africa apart in the intensity of malaria transmission and the challenge of interrupting it are its mosquito vectors, which prefer human hosts above all else.

  • For human malaria to be transmitted, a mosquito infected from biting one person with malaria must take her next blood meal from another person.
  • This sequence is virtually guaranteed by An. gambiae and An. funestus, the two most anthropophilic anopheline mosquitoes in the world.
  • These mosquitoes happen to live in Africa, explaining why Africa suffers 90% of all malaria deaths.

These two mosquito vectors are the principle objects of research projects in the Professor Nora J. Besansky’s laboratory, whose common threads intersect with the question, "What makes a good vector?"

What makes these two species such good vectors when hundreds of other anopheline mosquitoes are not medically important? Clearly, one feature is their association with humans, as reflected in a strong preference for human blood and the exploitation of anthropogenic settings for larval development and adult shelter.

A second feature, not as immediately obvious at first glance, is their abundance and widespread distribution across many diverse ecological settings of sub-Saharan Africa. This distribution reflects a powerful genetic flexibility. When it is considered that these species are closely tied to humans, whose population started to rise significantly only following the agricultural revolution, it can be inferred that they have not merely adapted, but have adapted quite rapidly to a broad array of different environments.

"Current research in my laboratory aims to understand the genetic basis of these adaptations, and their consequences in terms of mosquito population structure and speciation as well as increased malaria transmission." — Professor Nora Besansky, Dept. of Biological Sciences

The application of this research to malaria control is far from immediate. Practical on-the-ground solutions such as bed nets and insecticides are needed now, while research into novel sustainable genetic approaches continues. Eventual control or elimination of this disease is possible, but will take a concerted international effort and a multi-pronged if not multidisciplinary approach.

Total Funding: NIH R01: "Ecological genomics of Anopheles gambiae," PI: Besansky; $2,840,467 05/01/05 - 01/31/10

NIH R01: "Genetics of Anopheles funestus populations," PI: Besansky; $2,131,255; 07/01-06/06; no-cost extension thru 06/07.

NIH Contract: "VectorBase: A bioinformatics resource center for invertebrate vectors of human pathogens," Subcontractor (Contractor: Collins); $9,986,810; 06/04-06/09.

Genetics and genomics of drug resistance and virulence in the malaria parasite

More alarming than the rate at which malaria continues to kill people is the fact that along the Thailand/Cambodia border, multiple-drug-resistant strains of malaria have appeared and are becoming commonplace. Considering the “globalization” of the modern world, marked by ease of travel and an interdependent global economic community, spread of these resistant parasites is inevitable.

Already, the historical mainstay antimalarial drug, chloroquine, is ineffective in most malarious regions. The nearly completed P. falciparum genome sequence, along with integrated, analytical tools, offers fresh hope for gene discovery and identification of novel control strategies.

Michael Ferdig’s lab is using methods to overlay critical biological processes on whole-genome data to bridge the gap between drug resistance and parasite virulence with their underlying gene mutations. The long-range goal is to elucidate new avenues of malaria intervention.

Funding: $1.75 million from NIH/NIAID to study drug resistance and virulence in the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum.

"I believe solving malaria will require this whole-genome perspective." –Michael Ferdig, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Biological Sciences

More on Ferdig’s research:

Important discoveries in vaccine development

John H. Adams’ lab has made important discoveries in the areas of malaria genetics, pathogenesis, and vaccine development. With 2.5 million in funding from NIH/NIAID, Dr. Adams is pursuing the development of vaccines for Plasmodium vivax malaria using advanced analytic tools to facilitate development of an anti-vivax vaccine.

  • P. vivax is responsible for substantial morbidity in many developing countries and is the major cause of clinical malaria outside of Africa.
  • Vivax malaria severely incapacitates infected persons of all ages.
  • It leads to severe anemia, especially in young children, and an increased risk of low-birth-weight babies in pregnant women.

A second project seeks to define mosquito salivary gland receptors for P. falciparum, the most deadly form of malaria. Blocking sporozoite invasion of mosquito salivary glands would prevent the spread of malaria from mosquitoes to man.

“As a lab, we expect that a better understanding of Plasmodium's biology will enable us develop new ways to control malaria through vaccines and other prevention strategies.” –John H. Adams, Associate Professor, Dept. of Biological Sciences

Controlling dengue disease and other mosquito-borne viruses

Dengue fever is most prevalent in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. With no vaccine available, the main strategy for controlling dengue fever, as with malaria and other vector-borne diseases, has been to kill the insects that transmit the virus.

Faculty at the University of Notre Dame have been working to control this disease at the genetic level. ND researchers are now working to apply a novel approach to a number of mosquito-transmitted viruses in hopes of lessening the impact on global health so that people in even the poorest countries may lead healthier lives.

"Through its Grand Challenges, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has created a scientific community that is focused on not just studying the problems, but actually solving them." –Malcolm J. Fraser Jr., Professor of Biological Sciences

Bill Gates deemed this Notre Dame researcher among the "best minds" in the world to join Gates’ ambitious “Grand Challenges in Global Health” initiative. Professor Fraser received $2.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, part of the 2005 Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health, and the National Institutes of Health to explore genetic strategies that would transmute the mosquito host.

"It's shocking how little research is directed toward the diseases of the world’s poorest countries," "By harnessing the world's capacity for scientific innovation, I believe we can transform health in the developing world and save millions of lives." –Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

> Grand Challenges in Global Health

Curbing mortality from leishmaniasis in developing countries

Leishmaniasis disease causes substantial mortality in developing countries. The World Health Organization classifies leishmaniasis as one of the world’s epidemic-prone diseases. Infectious diseases — such as leishmaniasis, malaria, filariasis, and dengue and yellow fever — are the leading causes of death in developing countries. Together they account for more than 13 million deaths annually and are directly responsible for 1 in every 2 deaths in Third World countries.

Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Mary Ann McDowell and colleagues in the Center for Tropical Disease Research and Training are collaborating to create a more effective vaccine that will seriously curtail the spread of the disease and decrease mortality rates in developing countries.

Undertaking an important mission: the battle against tropical disease

The University's Department of Biological Sciences is internationally recognized for research in mosquito biology and houses the Center for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.

  • Biochemistry, immunology, pharmacology, cell biology, genetics, vaccine development, human response to infection
  • Faculty have undertaken research projects in Africa and South America

Notre Dame can help to shape a more hopeful worldview about this killer of the impoverished: "There is a certain level of acceptance that millions of deaths each year from diseases like malaria are inevitable." –Frank Collins, Director, Center for Global Health Infectious Diseases


Insects, such as mosquitoes, can decimate populations. The number of people around the world affected by mosquito-borne diseases is staggering. Notre Dame’s Jeanne Romero-Severson leads research in the areas of genomics and invasive insects.

"The Indiana Center for Insect Genomics will play a central role in anticipating and helping prevent threats from invasive species that cause human disease and crop damage." —Jeanne Romero-Severson, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences; Director, Indiana Center for Insect Genomics

Researchers in the Indiana Center for Insect Genomics have addressed the role that two species of mosquitoes play in the spread of malaria and yellow fever. Researchers are:

  • Preventing the spread of viruses worldwide
  • Understanding and controlling insects that transmit pathogens
  • Producing a safe cryopreservative for human tissue and organ transplants

Funding: $2 million from the Indiana 21st Century Research & Technology Fund

"Personally, I think we have one of the strongest vector genomics programs in the world." -Frank Collins, Director, Center for Tropical Disease Research and Training

The Role of the Jordan Hall of Science

Jordan Hall of Science

A cutting-edge facility to forge 21st century solutions to the global health crisis. This year’s Forum coincides with the opening of our new Jordan Hall of Science... > Read More

News & Events


World AIDS Week

In commemoration of World AIDS Day on December 1st, the World AIDS Day task force sponosred by the CSC will be hosting a week of events that focus on increasing awareness for HIV/AIDS among Notre Dame students and faculty.