Broad-Harvard team discovers new drug-resistant malaria parasite gene

Alice McCarthy, April 25th, 2011 | Filed under
  • Members of the African malaria genomics project
    Photo courtesy of Mamadou Lamine Cissee

In the 1950s the world’s first coordinated malaria eradication campaign was launched. At the time, insecticides like DDT and the drug chloroquine were highly effective in nearly eliminating malaria from many countries where the disease was endemic – at least for a while. Unfortunately the Plasmodium falciparum parasite, which causes malaria through the bite of an infected mosquito, rapidly outwitted containment measures and again flourishes throughout many regions, including Asia, Africa and South America. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 3.3 billion people - half of the world's population - are at risk of malaria. Every year 250 million malaria cases occur and 800,000 people die from the disease.

Timed to coincide with World Malaria Day, an awareness campaign instituted by the WHO’s World Health Assembly in 2007, researchers from the Broad Institute and the Harvard Public School of Health published new research on the genetics of the P. falciparum parasite (read the Broad news story here). The work represents an international collaboration between the two Massachusetts-based research institutes and investigators based in Nigeria and Senegel in sub-Saharan Africa where malaria remains a significant health threat. Almost 90% of all malaria-caused deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, primarily in young children.

The collaboration was partially established to help determine the genetic contributions leading to malaria, particularly drug-resistant disease. In last week’s paper in PLoS Genetics, the Broad/Harvard/Africa team reported on finding a new gene mutation in the P. falciparum parasite directly linked with resistance to several anti-malarial drugs.

World Malaria Day was established to recognize global efforts for malaria control. This team of researchers hopes this latest finding will eventually help local public health officials in regions where malaria is found to detect early cases of drug-resistant disease and apply parasite control strategies before it becomes widespread.

“We work with a network of collaborators across many malaria endemic countries,” says co-author Sarah Volkman, senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and a Broad visiting scientist. For this published work, the Senegalese team was led by Souleymane Mboup, an eminent researcher in infectious diseases in Africa, with important contributions from Daouda Ndiaye and Ousmane Sarr. “The team in Senegal is responsible for all of the parasite collection in Senegal,” adds Volkman. “In addition, the team in Senegal helped analyze the data looking for molecular markers of drug resistance.”

Today, the team’s Nigerian collaborator, Christian Happi at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, became the 2011 recipient of the Merle A. Sande Health Leadership Award from the Accordia Foundation. The award acknowledges his accomplishments in the field of medicine to eradicate malaria. “He has done pioneering work in drug resistance and he contributed to this project by obtaining and characterizing parasites from Nigeria,” adds Volkman.