Scientists Hail New Malaria DNA Research

Jessica Berman | 10 Dec 2006
Voice of America

Experts say new research is pointing scientists in the direction of better malaria surveillance and treatment. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, scientists have compared the genetic material of malaria parasites from around the world, and they say the development could eventually mean staying one step ahead of one of the world's most common and deadly diseases.

Reporting in the journal Nature Genetics researchers led by Harvard University's Dyann Wirth compared the DNA of the parasite that causes malaria from South America, Africa and Asia. The investigators found 47,000 specific differences among the genes.

By understanding the biology of the parasite, called Plasmodium falciparum, Wirth says scientists will be able to learn why the parasite becomes resistant to antibiotic drugs. Already the work has confirmed a region of the genome known to be involved in resistance to chloroquine, for decades the mainstay anti-malarial treatment.

It is estimated that malaria kills one person every 30 seconds. Most of them are children who live in Africa.

"In terms of application of this technology, it will allow researchers in countries where malaria is endemic to routinely survey the populations and determine areas, geographic areas where resistance is emerging and spreading," said Harvard University's Dyann Wirth.

Wirth's team also identified genes that might be good targets for vaccine development. She says they are involved in the parasite's interaction and eventual triumph over the human immune system.

"And they survive and are then transmitted," she said. "And so by looking at the sequences of those parasites, one can then infer how the human immune system was reacting. And one of our strategies is perhaps to use that information in picking future vaccine candidates and in designing future vaccines."

In a second paper also in Nature Genetics, researchers identify 7 potential molecular targets for a malaria vaccine.