Researchers from Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust Sanger institute have developed a new method for analysing the DNA of malaria parasites.
The new technique allows researchers to extract the malaria parasite DNA directly from patients’ blood samples, so that it is not necessary to grow the parasite in the lab before sequencing.
The findings, published in Nature, have found genetic differences between malaria parasites in Africa, Asia and Oceania, which means that the parasites can be tracked to enable scientists to learn more about the spread of malaria.
They reveal that a single infected person could harbour many genetically different malarial parasites, allowing the parasite populations to swap DNA to create new forms. This suggests that the pace of parasite evolution can be affected by human factors such as effective malaria control or restricted travel, as well as geography.
It is hoped that this will help researchers to identify places where malaria parasites are evolving quickly, and enable them to track resistance to malarial drug more quickly and efficiently than ever.
Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski, director of the Centre for Genomics and Global Health, a joint research project between the University of Oxford and the Sanger Institute, said that “Rapid sequencing of parasite genomes from the blood of infected people is a powerful way of detecting changes in the parasite population, and potentially an important new surveillance tool for controlling malaria.”
Professor Nick White, of Oxford University and Mahidol University in Thailand, who took part in the study, said, ‘Working as a global community, we can now build on this technique to identify hotspots of antimalarial drug resistance around the world and contain them effectively.’
Malaria is spread by mosquitos, and infects over 200 million people every year, killing approximately 650,000, primarily children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa.