Tracking A Killer
May 15, 2013

Tracking A Killer

What do you get when you combine DNA sequencing with World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologists?

Maybe, just maybe, you get the end of another world wide killer; malaria.

Eliminating malaria would save hundreds of thousands of lives a year across the planet. But killing off this particular parasite has proven elusive because it evolves quickly to become drug-resistant.

A CNN Health report reveals that researchers believe they might have discovered a way to track the spread of drug-resistant malaria, which would help them to finally eradicate the disease. The full study was published in Nature Genetics.

“We’ve seen past cases of (malaria) drug resistance spread in a specific pattern,” said study author Nicholas White from Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, and the University of Oxford in the UK. “It starts in Cambodia, spreads across Southeast Asia and crosses over to Africa, killing millions of children in the process.”

The drugs used to treat malaria are called artemisinins. In recent years, researchers have noticed that resistance to artemisinins is rising in Cambodia, raising fears that an untreatable strain of malaria could spread worldwide.

Cue the DNA sequencing.

An international group of researchers believes they have identified unique genetic fingerprints for artemisinin-resistant strains of malaria that will help detect and contain this difficult-to-treat form of the disease. They aren’t sure, though, how soon this might be of actual use to humans.

The team collected 825 malaria-causing parasites from 10 sites across Africa and Southeast Asia. In the process, they found three previously unknown resistant strains in western Cambodia. Each drug-resistant strain seems to have its own genetic makeup not seen in any other type of malaria-causing parasite.

White says that being able to “fingerprint” and track drug resistant malaria parasites is a significant step towards stopping the spread of this disease. According to the WHO, global deaths from malaria have fallen by 25% since 2000, but an estimated 3.3 BILLION people are still at risk. Most of these, researchers say, are children under five years old.

These genetic fingerprints can be used in the future to devise a blood test capable of predicting if someone with malaria will be resistant to artemisinin treatment, according to WHO Global Malaria program coordinator Dr. Pascal Ringwald.

“Being able to test people in this way should quickly reveal which parts of the world the resistance has spread to,” said Ringwald.

Tracking the resistant strains would allow scientists and researchers to put strategies in place that would keep the strains from moving beyond their current range, such as compulsory use of preventative medicines for travelers moving through the areas.

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