Researchers uncover genome of malaria parasite

Research done at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University's School of Biological Sciences could lead to the development of more potent drugs or a vaccine for malaria, ScienceDaily reported Feb. 5.

Assistant Professor Zbynek Bozdech and his team of researchers, including graduate and post-doctoral students from SBS' Division of Genomics & Genetics, have successfully used transcriptional profiling to uncover hitherto unknown gene expression patterns in malaria.

The research team's breakthrough made the January edition of Nature Biotechnology, which is a satellite publication of Nature.

Transcriptional profiling is the measurement of the activity of thousands of genes at once, to create a global picture of cellular function. These profiles can, for example, distinguish between cells that are actively dividing, or show how the cells react to a particular treatment.

This breakthrough has yielded critical information about how the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum — the most deadly form of malaria — responds to existing compounds with curative potential.

P. falciparum has about 5,300 genes. Up until now, scientists have a good understanding of the gene functions for only about half of them.

Using transcriptional profiling, Bozdech's team has uncovered the gene functions for almost the entire genome, with more than 90 percent of the gene functions from the previously unknown half now better understood.

"Drawing on our findings, pharmaceutical companies could explore ways to design a drug that targets the weakest link," Bozdech said of his research, which was supported with more than $630,000 in grants from Singapore's Ministry of Education and the National Medical Research Council.

"We have predicted all the genes that could be used for a vaccine as well," he said.

Researchers at Germany's Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, have validated the research findings, which are expected to provide exciting new insights into parasite biology.

"The database would be useful to scientists around the world who are developing new vaccines and drugs," says Dr. Tim Gilberger, director of Malaria Research at BNI.

Preventing malaria infection is important because resistance to anti-malarial drugs is a growing problem worldwide. It kills up to 3 million people each year. Also of growing concern to scientists is the confirmation of the first signs of resistance to Artemisinin, the only affordable treatment left in the global medicine cabinet for malaria.