Science

Drug-Resistant Strains Of Malaria Identified: Epidemic On The Way?

By Nina Sen , Apr 29, 2013 04:02 PM EDT
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New strains of malaria resistant to a common drug for the illness have been identified, scientists say.

Scientists from several international research centers discovered the new artemisinin-resistant strains of malaria. These particular strains were found in Western Cambodia. Researchers published their findings telling how they were able to find distinct genetic patterns in the strains in the April 28 online issue of Nature Genetics. April 25 was World Malaria Day.

Artemisinin is the key drug used against malaria. The illness is caused when the parasite P. falciparum (Plasmodium falciparum) gets into the bloodstream through a mosquito bite. There are several other parasites that cause malaria but P. falciparum is the most common and causes the most severe infections.

"All the most effective drugs that we have had in the last few decades have been one by one rendered useless by the remarkable ability of this parasite to mutate and develop resistance. Artemisinin right now works very well. It is the best weapon we have against the disease, and we need to keep it," wrote lead author, Dr Olivo Miotto, of the University of Oxford and Mahidol University in Thailand, in the study.

The researchers looked at 800 different strains of parasite P. falciparum to identify the drug-resistant groups. Scientists already knew that artemisinin-resistant strains of malaria existed but had not identified the genetic sequencing. Although scientists don't know what mutations the bacteria evolved to be drug-resistant, understanding the genetic fingerprint would help experts to spot and track these strains before spreading.

Drug resistance occurs through genetic changes in the parasites, making them less susceptible to the drugs used to kill them.

"Artemisinin resistance is an emergency which could derail all the good work of global malaria control in recent years. We desperately need methods to track it in order to contain it, and molecular fingerprinting provides this," co-author Nicholas White, a professor from the Centre for Tropical Medicine at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

The World Health Organization estimates there were about 219 million cases of malaria in 2010 and 660,000 deaths.  About 90 percent of all malaria deaths occur in Africa. Most others occur in East and South Asia.

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