Breakthrough in fight against malaria parasite

A woman comforts her son who is suffering from malaria as they wait for treatment at a Medecins Sans Frontieres-run clinic in South Sudan./REUTERS
A woman comforts her son who is suffering from malaria as they wait for treatment at a Medecins Sans Frontieres-run clinic in South Sudan./REUTERS

 Scientists have identified the core genes that are essential for the deadliest malaria parasite to survive, revealing new targets for drugs or vaccines to fight the potentially deadly disease they cause in people.

Using new genomic techniques to analyse the parasite's genes, researchers from Britain's Wellcome Sanger Institute and the University of South Florida (USF) were able to determine which ones are indispensable.

World Health Organisation (WHO) data show that 216million people were infected last year with the malaria parasite, which is transmitted by blood-sucking anopheles mosquitoes.

Nearly half a million people - most of them babies and children in Africa - died from the disease in 2016.

One type of the malaria parasite, known as plasmodium falciparum, or P falciparum, causes half of all malaria cases and about 90% of the deaths.

The Sanger and USF researchers, whose work was published in the journal Science, analysed almost every one of this parasite's 5400 genes. They used a specialised technique called piggyBac-transposon insertional mutagenesis to inactivate genes at random, and then developed new DNA sequencing technology to identify which genes were affected. Their results showed that about half the parasite's genes - more than 2600 - were essential for it to grow in red blood cells.

"Using our genetic analysis tools, we [were] able to determine the relative importance of each gene for parasite survival," said John Adams, a specialist in global health and infectious disease research at USF.

Malaria is a treatable disease if it is caught early, but current antimalarial drugs are failing in many areas due to drug resistance.

"We need new drug targets against malaria, now more than ever," said Julian Rayner, a Sanger expert who co-led the research.

"This gives a list of 2680 essential genes that researchers can prioritise as promising possible drug targets." - Reuters

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