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The birth of Sir Ronald Ross

This month in pharma: May 1857, the birth of the man who proved that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes
calendar May 1857

A number of worthy Nobel Prize winners have features in this column, but one of the first to pick up the honour in physiology or medicine was the British doctor, Sir Ronald Ross,  who received the award in 1902, in the second year such a prize was given.

It should come as no surprise, given the lasting impact of Ross's efforts in tackling one of the world's deadliest diseases, with the Nobel committee recognising Ross “for his work on malaria, by which he has shown how it enters the organism and thereby has laid the foundation for successful research on this disease and methods of combating it”.

In other words, Ross was the man who proved that malaria was transmitted by the anopheles mosquito, giving the world a target to focus on in its attempts to prevent the spread of a disease older than humanity.

Born in India on May 13, 1857, he had experience of malaria at an early age, when his grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Ross contracted the disease.

After moving to England at the age of eight, Ross studied medicine in London, before returning to India as part of the Indian Medical Service.

It was here in 1894 that his study of malaria began, when he determined to make an experimental investigation of Alphonse Laveran and Sir Patrick Manson's independent hypothesis that mosquitoes were connected with the propagation of the disease.

In his Nobel speech, Ross comments that when his mentor Manson told him his hypothesis, he was “immediately and powerfully struck” by the idea, resolving to begin experimenting as soon as possible.

It took two-and-a-half years, but eventually Ross managed to make his crucial first discovery in demonstrating the life cycle of malaria in mosquitoes, finding the malaria parasite while dissecting the stomach of a mosquito purposely fed on the blood of a malaria victim.

Further research fully established how the malaria parasite was picked up and transmitted by mosquitoes, before Ross returned to the UK to announce his findings.
This information allowed action to be taken to prevent malaria before it reached humans, the best available treatment at the time being quinine, which left patients at risk of adverse advents.

He also wrote the book The Prevention of Malaria, where he advised the following: 'The use of ordinary mosquito-nets, of wire-gauze to the windows and doors of houses, of punkas and fans (which drive away the insects), of culicifuges, that is, substances which, when applied to the skin, tend to keep them off, and even the use of smoke, woollen clothing and bed coverings, must all tend to have the desired effect.'

Ross himself set about initiating preventative measures in several regions where the disease was rife, including West Africa, Cyprus and areas where levels of malaria increased during World War I. He also established related organisations in the planting industries of India and Ceylon.

These efforts continued throughout Ross' life, with the doctor holding many esteemed positions throughout his career, including consultant in malariology to the UK's War Office, president of the Society of Tropical Medicine and director-in-chief of the Ross Institute and Hospital of Tropical Diseases and Hygiene, which was founded in Ross' honour.

Today, preventative efforts may have cut down the spread of the disease, and even eradicated it in the US through the spraying of insecticides, but there were still about 1.2m deaths during 2010, according to a study published in the Lancet.

The majority of deaths occur among children in Africa, which is where most malaria prevention and treatment efforts are made. This includes work conducted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has challenged the healthcare world to eradicate malaria worldwide.

This has involved supporting the work of pharma companies such as GlaxoSmithKline in developing what could be the world's first malaria vaccine RTS,S. Trial results in Africa demonstrated that the vaccine was able to reduce the risk of malaria in children by half.

Other pharma efforts in controlling malaria include Bayer's development of a mosquito net treated with insecticide.

Ongoing development treatment is vital too, with the virus growing resistance against traditional treatments.

Compounds in the pipeline include dual-acting imidazolopiperazines, discovered by Novartis, that tackle not only the blood-borne phase of the parasite's life cycle, but also the hard-to-treat liver phase.

Sanofi also has projects with Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) to develop new treatments, with a focus on distributing them in developing nations.

The French company won the 2010 Global Business Coalition Core Competence Award for the latter project.

As these initiatives show, no company is doing it alone, with partnerships between industry and not-for-profit organisations working together to achieve Ross' ultimate aim of ridding the world of malaria. 

Tom Meek
The Author
Tom Meek
, web editor at PMLiVE

14th May 2012


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