In Madagascar, Stanford researchers are working to improve health — and studying lemurs

February 14, 2017 | By Ruthann Richter

When Mark Krasnow, MD, PhD, isn’t in his biochemistry lab at Stanford, he might be found in the rainforests of Madagascar chasing down mouse lemurs. These big-eyed, cuddly-looking creatures are the smallest, fastest-maturing primates on earth. Some 20 million of them roam the landscape in Madagascar, the only region of the world where they live.

Krasnow said he turned to lemurs out of frustration with studies in mice, which make up the vast majority of animal model systems but often don’t mimic human biology and behavior. From a genetic perspective, lemurs are about half the distance between mice and humans, Krasnow said.

He wondered whether it would be possible to find interesting mutations in the animals and then identify the affected genes, making it possible to use lemurs as genetic models for all aspects of primate biology including human disease. Indeed, after six years of tracking lemurs in the wild and studying their blood samples and DNA, “we are starting to build a new model organism for studying primate genetics,” he said.

Krasnow was among some 20 speakers at a day-long symposium at Stanford devoted to Madagascar, whose biodiversity makes it a unique living laboratory for research in biology, ecology and the impact of environmental change on human disease.

The island nation is home to a rich ecosystem of animal and plant life that is rapidly being destroyed by human intervention, including slash-and-burn projects to make way for agriculture and other business ventures, said Michele Barry, MD, director of the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, which sponsored the conference together with the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Program for Disease Ecology, Health and the Environment and PIVOT, a nonprofit aiming to create a model health system in Madagascar.

“It’s one of the hotspots of ecology in the world, and we are quickly losing these hotspots,” Barry said in opening the conference.

Land use changes, degradation of water supplies, climate change and habitat loss worldwide all have led to unintended consequences for human health, and Madagascar is emblematic of that trend, said Steve Luby, MD, director of research for the global health center. “As biological creatures, our health is inextricably linked to the environment in which we live. By destroying the planet, we are destroying the habitat in which we live,” said Luby, MD, a Stanford epidemiologist and director of research for Stanford Global Health. “Madagascar is a microcosm of the broader problem.”

Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, spending some $14 per capita a year on health care in a population plagued by malaria, tuberculosis and parasitic diseases, among other ailments. Speakers at the symposium described a variety of projects they’ve created to help address the nation’s heavy burden of disease:

  • Matt Bonds, PhD, a visiting assistant professor at Stanford, has founded the nonprofit organization, PIVOT, designed to be a model health care system for Madagascar and for science and innovation generally. The group has provided treatment to some 65,000 people through a network of clinics and is collecting data child on malnutrition and other health conditions, with an eye to developing interventions.
  • Purvesh Khatri, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford, has developed a novel blood test for TB that will be field-tested in Madagascar starting this summer, he and his colleague, Jeffrey Freeman, MD, of Johns Hopkins, reported.
  • Manu Prakash, PhD, an assistant professor of engineering at Stanford, has brought his brand of “frugal science” to Madagascar, teaching school children to build their own paper microscopes through which they examined their own head lice.
  • Robert Siegel, MD, PhD, a professor of microbiology and immunology, has been taking Stanford students to the island nation to teach them about species adaption, ecology and evolution.

Learn more about "Madgascar: A Crucible for Science, Health and the Environment" and view the full event program >>

Rachel Leslie, Stanford Global Health communications officer, contributed to this article. The story originally appeared on Stanford Medicine's Scope blog.


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