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New Tech Could Solve One of the Biggest Obstacles in Curing Malaria

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Posted March 7, 2018

Mosquito. Image credit: imagesthai.com via Pexels, CC0 Public Domain

Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite within mosquitoes. Although it’s often attributed to deaths in various parts of Africa and Asia, doctors diagnose nearly 2,000 cases of malaria in the U.S. every year.

Many of the U.S. cases occur within travelers and immigrants, but their issues are easily exacerbated by the fact that malaria is so hard to treat.

The challenge primarily revolves around dormant parasites that sometimes remain in the livers of malaria patients. When dormant, the parasite is resistant and even immune to many antimalarial drugs on the market. Dormant parasites can take weeks, months or even years to resume activity and trigger a relapse of the disease.

Well over 200 million cases of malaria were reported in 2016 alone, resulting in approximately 445,000 deaths around the world. But a recent breakthrough aims to bolster the development and testing of new antimalarial drugs in hopes of finally finding a cure for the disease.

Growing Malaria — for Science

To address the issue, researchers had to cultivate the dormant parasite within lab-controlled conditions. After completing this step, the team found they could edit the parasite’s RNA to evaluate its response to specific drugs —  both pre-existing and new.

According to reports, it took no fewer than 10 years for researchers to grow the organism, verify its functionality and perform the required drug testing. Many different tests for malaria currently exist, including the fluorescence microscopy-based malaria diagnostic test. Highly popular due to its simplicity, sensitivity to malaria and its approval from the FDA, the test is used extensively across the globe.

The QBC Malaria Test — which uses the fluorescence microscopy method — was the first malaria diagnostic test to hit the market with FDA approval. Not only does it have numerous scientific studies supporting its effectiveness, but it has a track record of diagnosing malaria quickly and accurately in the field.

While the latest breakthrough won’t result in any new drugs on its own, it opens the door for easier and more comprehensive testing of potential solutions in the future.

Targeting Malaria From All Angles

Researchers are also discovering new treatment targets for malaria. By eliminating the proteins malaria parasites use when escaping red blood cells in the human body, scientists hope to treat malaria in new and innovative ways.

The original study —  which identified the two key proteins in question —  was published in early 2018. It was a joint venture involving the Proteomics Science Technology Platform at the Crick and various teams with King’s College London, Birkbeck College and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Mother Nature Isn’t Helping

Unfortunately, Mother Nature is hampering the fight against malaria. As mosquitoes frequent areas with standing water and heat, tropical and subtropical regions are at increased risk — including portions of the southeastern U.S. This is especially true during summers that are warmer and wetter than normal.

According to the latest studies — which factor historical weather data from 1901 and future projections up until 2100 — regions in the U.S., Canada and Australia are at an increased risk of experience climate extremes in the coming years. Areas like Africa and Asia, where diseases like malaria are already commonplace, will likely see an increase in cases as they continue to experience extreme and sudden climate changes, too.

Fighting to Bring an End to Malaria

Since it’s a disease that poses a tremendous risk to infants and the elderly, malaria is particularly devastating to small, tight-knit communities.

While much of the world’s population can avoid infection by restricting their travels in at-risk regions, those who live in these areas aren’t so lucky. In their case, the latest scientific breakthroughs mean the difference between life and death.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.

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