Researchers have created the first map of genetic diversity of the malaria parasite, providing new insights in the fight against a public health scourge that kills one person every 30 seconds.
In work that focused on the most deadly of the four malaria parasites that infect humans, Plasmodium falciparum, researchers found nearly double the diversity they expected. They also identified genetic regions linked to resistance to two anti-malarial drugs.
The advance, by an international team led by researchers at the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), can rapidly translate to improvements on the ground, such as better diagnosis of specific malaria strains and monitoring for the emergence of drug resistance, according to Dyann Wirth, chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, co-director of the Broad Institute’s Infectious Disease Initiative, and the study’s senior author.
“One of the immediate applications is that we should be able to develop a tool to detect the emergence of drug resistance in populations and map its spread,” Wirth said.
The early detection of drug resistance is critical in better managing the disease. If doctors understand early on that a patient is infected with a strain resistant to a particular drug, they can use other medications and strategies to fight the disease, rather than a blind trial-and-error approach.
“This is a way for one to get ahead of the curve, instead of waiting for clinical failure,” Wirth said.
The research represents a critical intersection of advancing technology and basic science aimed at understanding the human genome – pioneered under the leadership of Eric Lander at the Broad Institute – and their application to modern public health problems.