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Plasmodium falciparum

Tagging Essential Malaria Genes to Advance Drug Development

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Red blood cell infected with malaria-causing parasites

Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a blood cell infected with malaria parasites (blue with dots) surrounded by uninfected cells (red).
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

As a volunteer physician in a small hospital in Nigeria 30 years ago, I was bitten by lots of mosquitoes and soon came down with headache, chills, fever, and muscle aches. It was malaria. Fortunately, the drug available to me then was effective, but I was pretty sick for a few days. Since that time, malarial drug resistance has become steadily more widespread. In fact, the treatment that cured me would be of little use today. Combination drug therapies including artemisinin have been introduced to take the place of the older drugs [1], but experts are concerned the mosquito-borne parasites that cause malaria are showing signs of drug resistance again.

So, researchers have been searching the genome of Plasmodium falciparum, the most-lethal species of the malaria parasite, for potentially better targets for drug or vaccine development. You wouldn’t think such work would be too tough because the genome of P. falciparum was sequenced more than 15 years ago [2]. Yet it’s proven to be a major challenge because the genetic blueprint of this protozoan parasite has an unusual bias towards two nucleotides (adenine and thymine), which makes it difficult to use standard research tools to study the functions of its genes.

Now, using a creative new spin on an old technique, an NIH-funded research team has solved this difficult problem and, for the first time, completely characterized the genes in the P. falciparum genome [3]. Their work identified 2,680 genes essential to P. falciparum’s growth and survival in red blood cells, where it does the most damage in humans. This gene list will serve as an important guide in the years ahead as researchers seek to identify the equivalent of a malarial Achilles heel, and use that to develop new and better ways to fight this deadly tropical disease.

Gene Drive Research Takes Aim at Malaria

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Mosquitoes and a Double HelixMalaria has afflicted humans for millennia. Even today, the mosquito-borne, parasitic disease claims more than a half-million lives annually [1]. Now, in a study that has raised both hope and concern, researchers have taken aim at this ancient scourge by using one of modern science’s most powerful new technologies—the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool—to turn mosquitoes from dangerous malaria vectors into allies against infection [2].

The secret behind this new strategy is the “gene drive,” which involves engineering an organism’s genome in a way that intentionally spreads, or drives, a trait through its population much faster than is possible by normal Mendelian inheritance. The concept of gene drive has been around since the late 1960s [3]; but until the recent arrival of highly precise gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9, the approach was largely theoretical. In the new work, researchers inserted into a precise location in the mosquito chromosome, a recombinant DNA segment designed to block transmission of malaria parasites. Importantly, this segment also contained a gene drive designed to ensure the trait was inherited with extreme efficiency. And efficient it was! When the gene-drive engineered mosquitoes were mated with normal mosquitoes in the lab, they passed on the malaria-blocking trait to 99.5 percent of their offspring (as opposed to 50 percent for Mendelian inheritance).

Malaria Vaccine Shows Promise

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Malaria has confounded biomedical researchers for decades because it’s been impossible so far to develop a vaccine that offers a high level of protection. But, thanks to a different approach to vaccine design and delivery, there’s hope that we may have finally turned the corner in the fight against this mosquito-borne health threat.

Fighting Malaria, With a Little Help from Bacteria

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photo of a red-bellied mosquito adjacet to a photo of pink blobs

Caption: Anopheles female blood feeding and Plasmodium falciparum eggs in Anopheles mosquito midguts.
Credit: Image courtesy of Jose Luis Ramirez, Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research, NIAID, NIH

It turns out that one of the most innovative and effective strategies to fight malaria might involve harnessing a bacterium called Wolbachia. This naturally occurring genus of bacteria infects many species of insects, including mosquitoes. The reason this is important is that Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes become resistant to the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which causes some 219 million cases of malaria worldwide and more than 660,000 deaths [1]. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes blocked the transmission of malaria?

Unfortunately, Wolbachia don’t normally pass from generation to generation in Anopheles, the mosquitoes that spread malaria. But that hurdle has now been overcome.