Tulane University researchers were given $ 4.1 million to study the effects of malaria and HIV co-infection in pregnant women

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Jennifer Manuzak, Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Tulane National Primate Research Center, has received a five-year grant of $ 4.1 million to identify key factors that lead to poor maternal and fetal outcomes in HIV-infected women, who become infected with malaria during pregnancy. (Photo by Robin Rodriguez)

There are currently more than 38 million people living with HIV worldwide, including women who contract malaria while pregnant. These women and their fetuses typically have very poor health outcomes, but the specific mechanism by which these two diseases interact – especially during the unique stage of pregnancy – has not yet been studied or understood.

Jennifer Manuzak, Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, has a five-year fellowship of 4.1 million Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development to identify key factors that lead to poor maternal and fetal outcomes in HIV-infected women who contract malaria during pregnancy. Understanding the interactions between these two infections in women already receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART), the drugs used to treat HIV, is the first step in developing new treatments for this particularly vulnerable group of pregnant women.

Women who live with HIV and who treat their infection with antiretroviral therapy often lead long lives and enjoy healthy pregnancies. But places around the world with the highest HIV rates also suffer from endemic malaria, which puts many women and their unborn children at risk. Researchers know relatively little about the effects of co-infection, and current treatments available to prevent malaria during pregnancy have had limited success in women with HIV.

Manuzak is particularly interested in researching immune layers that act as an interface between the outside and inside world. In pregnancy, the decidual lining of the placenta serves as the maternal side of this maternal-fetal interface, and Manuzak seeks to understand how the inflammation and activation of immune cells in this tissue during co-infection contributes to poor maternal and fetal outcomes including low birth weight, stillbirth, Premature birth and death.

“I am interested in understanding how atypical immune responses in the decidua could contribute to significantly higher disease and death rates in HIV- and malaria-co-infected mothers and their unborn babies,” said Manuzak. “My hope that this will eventually lead to effective prevention and treatment in areas where these diseases overlap.”

Manuzak’s team will simulate HIV and malaria co-infection in pregnant women with ART using a non-human primate disease model whose pregnancy, immunology and physiology are very similar to those of humans.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development seeks to reduce the burden of malaria infections in vulnerable women living with HIV, especially in resource-constrained countries where these diseases are particularly difficult to prevent.


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