New genetic mutation could indicate drug-resistant malaria in Africa

New genetic mutation could mean drug-resistant malaria in Africa
New genetic mutation could mean drug-resistant malaria in Africa | Courtesy of
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have discovered a new genetic mutation in Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria, which may mean the beginning of drug-resistant malaria in Africa.

The mutated gene, ap2mu, makes the parasite less sensitive to artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug that is the most effective treatment available.

In 2013, the same school led a study that showed a link between ap2mu genetically mutating and malaria parasites growing resistant to treatments; Kenyan children with malaria of this mutation still had the parasites in their blood after receiving malaria treatments.

In the latest study, the scientists genetically altered ap2mu in the malaria parasite. Their results showed these mutated malaria strains needed 32 percent artemisinin to kill the parasites. In addition, the mutated parasite was 42.4 percent less susceptible to quinine, the traditional malaria treatment.

In the past, drug-resistant malaria has originated in Southeast Asia before spreading to Africa. The study indicates there may be a unique mutation occurring in Africa.

"Our findings could be a sign of much worse things to come for malaria in Africa,” Colin Sutherland, the study's lead researcher and reader in parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said. “The malaria parasite is constantly evolving to evade our control efforts. We've already moved away from using quinine to treat cases as the malaria parasite has become more resistant to it, but if further drug resistance were to develop against our most valuable malaria drug, artemisinin, we would be facing a grave situation."

Estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) state there are over 500,000 deaths due to malaria each year. Most of these deaths occur in children who are younger than 5 years old.

"We now know that the gene ap2mu is an important factor in determining how well our drugs kill malaria parasites,” Sutherland said. “We will be conducting laboratory and field studies to more accurately measure the impact of mutations in the ap2mu gene. We hope our findings will help understand resistance of malaria to drugs, and potentially be an important tool for monitoring malaria treatment in the future."

More details have been published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Organizations in this Story

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

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