Case Western creates new means of tracking malaria

Case Western Reserve University investigators have recently used tailored genetic assays and non-traditional mathematical analysis to uncover and track the deadliest forms of drug-resistant malaria.

Researchers can now identify when patients and populations are infected with drug-resistant strains and can tailor treatment protocols towards them. The increase in appearance of drug-resistant strains has been associated with increased malaria morbidity and mortality, according to the study, which appears in the journal BioMed Central Genetics.

Earlier detection means that, in the midst of an outbreak, those that contracted a resistant strain can be treated separately, before the resistance becomes established in the population and drugs become useless.

"There is no vaccine for malarial parasites; we depend on drugs and the biggest threat is the parasites continue to evolve resistance," Carol Hopkins Sibley, the scientific director of the WorldWide Antimalarial Resistance Network, told "They've come up with a better way to identify resistance. You can look at hundreds or thousands of samples in a day or two. That eliminates a lot of work and expense."

The assays in the study tag the molecular markers associated with malaria infection with fluorescent beads. One tag marks the drug-sensitive form of P. falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria, and the other tags the drug-resistant form. The differences between the two were previously so small that testing proved to be a difficult task.

Plotting the results using polar coordinates eliminated crossover among the fluorescent signals and led to a clear delineation of who in the study was infected with which strains.

Peter J. Thomas, assistant professor of mathematics and biology at Case Western Reserve University said that after further studies verify the results, the team could look for funding to build a computer program that automatically uses polar coordinates to process the data. 

"If we set up a web-based data-analysis tool, it could be useful for field researchers without specialized mathematical expertise," Thomas said.