Jul 19, 2008

World - Biting Back

Malaria, an ancient and devastating disease afflicting humanity, infects about 600 million people killing more than a million each year, mainly in the wet tropical regions of the world. In India, the malady has staged a dramatic comeback after its near-eradication in the early and mid-1960s. That's because prophylactic measures are still not economically viable, vaccines haven't been developed as yet and all currently available drugs that attempt to disrupt the metabolism of the parasite are beginning to slowly fail due to the bug's continuously evolving resistance. It's obvious a completely different strategy is needed now. The good news is that Australian scientists have identified a potential treatment to combat malaria by pinpointing the process that helps the disease gain control of the body. In its usual course, infected mosquitoes inject the malaria parasite into humans which then infects healthy red blood cells, transforming them into sticky sacks containing up to 32 new daughter parasites. The hijacked red blood cells are then able to adhere to vessel walls, thereby avoiding being flushed through the spleen and being destroyed there by the body's immune system. The Melbourne-based researchers have found eight new proteins that transport the parasite's major adhesion factor to the surface of infected red cells where it promotes the formation of sticky knobs. More importantly, they've shown that removal of just one of these proteins has the ability to disrupt the parasite bag to stick to blood vessel walls, thereby blocking the virulence or the capacity of the parasite to cause disease. It also has the potential of developing genetically attenuated, or weakened, parasites, which could be used as a live vaccine as has been done with many other debilitating ailments such as hepatitis B. Malaria, which is preventable and curable but can be fatal if not treated promptly, is commonly associated with poverty. But it is also a cause of poverty and a major hindrance to economic development. Any fresh breakthrough in new anti-malarial drugs should not only be supported by governments worldwide but privately funded agencies too. Perhaps this is where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is proactively committed to eradicating malaria, could step in. All this, however, doesn't mean we let stagnant water collect in the meantime.

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