U professor studies cerebral malaria in Kenya and Uganda

Chandy John focused his studies on malaria after suffering from it.

Associate Professor John Chandy [VERB] at his laboratory Thursday in the Lions Research Building/McGuire Translational Research Facility

Mark Vancleave

Associate Professor John Chandy [VERB] at his laboratory Thursday in the Lions Research Building/McGuire Translational Research Facility

Mukhtar Ibrahim

Chandy John remembers when he got malaria while doing his medical residency in Nigeria.
“It was the worst I ever felt in my life,” he said. “I felt incredibly weak and drained and absolutely exhausted.”
Since then, the University of Minnesota associate professor of pediatrics and medicine and director of the University’s Center for Global Pediatrics has focused his studies on the disease.
He set up three research laboratories in Africa — one in Kenya and two in Uganda — in addition to his own research laboratory in the Lions Research Building/McGuire Translational Research Facility.
His research in Kenya looks at how immunity to malaria changes in areas with a higher prevalence of the disease, such as the highlands.
While these areas don’t have year-round transmission where people are exposed to malaria every day, they have seasonal transmission, John said.
In Uganda, John studies cerebral malaria, an acute type of malaria that affects the brain.
Children are highly susceptible to this type of malaria, which can cause serious brain injuries.
One in four children with cerebral malaria develop a cognitive impairment by the time they are two years old, John said, adding that his group of researchers was the first to “describe prospectively, looking forward” that a significant proportion of children with cerebral malaria become cognitively impaired with diminished mental functions.
One way to treat these children is to perform cognitive rehabilitation, which is an important intervention, said Michael Boivin, an associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Michigan State University. Boivin collaborates with John on his cerebral malaria research at the Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda.
In Kenya, children die of malaria every day, said John Vulule, director and chief research officer for the Center for Global Health Research in Kenya. Vulule also collaborates with John on malaria research.
“Over the weekend, a close friend buried a 13-year-old child who passed on from the disease,” Vulule said from Kenya.
In 2008, malaria killed nearly 1 million children and there were about 247 million total cases of malaria worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
A child dies from malaria every 45 seconds and the disease accounts for 20 percent of all childhood deaths in Africa, according to WHO.
While serving his medical rotations, John said he saw many cases of malaria in Bangladesh, Louis and Nigeria. John, whose parents are from India and worked as physicians in a mission hospital there, said he’s long been aware of the health problems in developing countries.
This instilled in John the idea that it was imperative to improve the living conditions of those “who had less,” he said, “particularly in the area of health.” He attended medical school at the University of Michigan with that idea in mind.
John established the CGP at the University, which aims to improve the health of underserved children worldwide through medical education, translational research, clinical care and advocacy.
He said he alternates his time teaching medical students, doing research and seeing patients. He visits his research laboratory in Kenya twice a year.
Having had malaria when he was in Nigeria helps John connect with those who have the disease, especially children, he said.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “Kids die from it all the time. I don’t wish that on anyone.”