Home Sci-Tech Africa: Malaria Data Opened Up to Combat Drug Resistance

Africa: Malaria Data Opened Up to Combat Drug Resistance

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A huge trove of aggregated data on malaria parasites from around the globe is unlocking genetic secrets on the organism’s evolution and could assist in the mounting battle against drug resistance, experts say.

Scientists analysed genetic variations of 7,000 Plasmodium falciparum parasites from 28 countries, and curated the data to make it accessible to other researchers, including those without expertise in genetics.

The open access dataset, analysed in a study that is currently undergoing peer review in the journal Wellcome Open Research, represents the world’s largest resource of genomic data on malaria parasite evolution and drug resistance, according to the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge, UK.

Richard Pearson, co-author and data scientist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told SciDev.Net the data could help in the search for new drugs and vaccines, and the development of surveillance tools needed to control and eliminate malaria.

The Plasmodium falciparum parasite, which is transmitted to people via mosquito bites, is the deadliest malaria parasite globally and the most prevalent species in Africa, where it accounted for almost 100 per cent of malaria cases in 2018, according to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates.

Malaria is preventable and curable, yet remains a major global health problem, with an estimated 229 million cases and 409,000 deaths in 2019, according to the WHO.

The WHO African region is disproportionately affected, accounting for 94 per cent of malaria cases and deaths in 2019, though people in South-East Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, Western Pacific, and the Americas are also at risk.

Resistance of the parasite to antimalarial medicines has been a recurring problem since the 1950s. Pearson, also of the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute, said the curated data could help build understanding of the genetics of this resistance.

“Malaria parasites are constantly evolving, for example, in ways that can make them resistant to the different drugs used to treat malaria,” he said. “Understanding which genes are changing, and where in the world this is happening, can help with control programmes.”

Other genetic changes in the parasite can cause the failure of diagnostic tests, resulting in patients not receiving the correct treatment, said Pearson.

“We’re in a constant arms race with the parasite,” he added. “We try new things, new drugs and so on, but the parasite, as with all life, keeps evolving to find a way round them. We’re trying to keep a step ahead.”

The data was produced by MalariaGEN, a global network of groups who are leading separate studies into the biology and epidemiology of malaria while working together to build data resources aimed at controlling the disease.