Public Release: 

Genetic marker found for resistance to malaria treatment in Cambodia

Study enables monitoring of Piperaquine resistance

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and their collaborators have discovered genetic markers in malaria parasites linked with resistance to the anti-malarial drug piperaquine. Reported in Lancet Infectious Diseases, this research will allow health officials to monitor the spread of resistance, and help doctors and public health officers decide where the treatment is most likely to be effective.

Resistance to this key anti-malarial drug has recently emerged in Cambodia, leading to complete treatment failure there, threatening global efforts to treat and eliminate malaria.

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites and in 2015, the World Health Organisation estimated that more than 200 million people were infected and nearly half a million people died worldwide from the disease. Children under the age of five made up 70 percent of these deaths. Malaria is a treatable disease when caught early enough, but is a huge problem in many areas due to drug resistance.

Piperaquine is a powerful drug, which is used in combination with another anti-malarial, artemisinin, as a first-line treatment in many areas of the world. Resistance to artemisinin emerged more than seven years ago in South East Asia, but until recently the combination of the drugs still successfully killed the malaria parasites there. Now, the development of piperaquine resistance has led to complete failure of treatment in Cambodia.

Researchers carried out a genome-wide association study on approximately 300 Plasmodium falciparum samples from Cambodia to study the genetic basis behind piperaquine resistance. They looked at thousands of variations in the DNA sequence of the parasites, comparing these across samples with different levels of resistance to piperaquine.

Dr Roberto Amato, lead author from the Sanger Institute, said: "By studying the genomes of these parasites we found two genetic markers that are linked with piperaquine resistance. Not only can we now use these markers to monitor the spread of the drug resistant malaria, they will also help towards understanding as much as possible about the biology and evolution of the parasite."

The scientists found that extra copies of the genes encoding two proteins of a family called plasmepsin, were linked with piperaquine resistance. Plasmepsins are part of a biological pathway that is targeted by other anti-malarial drugs, so this marker could also help the researchers understand the mechanism of the drug resistance. In addition to this, a mutation on chromosome 13 was found to be a second genetic marker linked with the resistance. Both markers were observed in parasites infecting patients who were not responding to treatment.

Dr Amato added: "The emergence of piperaquine resistance in these Cambodian parasites has led to complete treatment failure there. These malaria parasites are now resistant to both drugs, and since they are no longer being killed, resistance to both drugs will spread. This will threaten global attempts to eliminate malaria."

Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski, from the Sanger Institute said: "These findings provide the tools needed to map how far this resistance has spread, looking for these molecular markers in parasites in Cambodia and neighbouring countries. This will allow national malaria control programmes to rapidly recommend alternative therapies where possible and where needed, enhancing treatment for patients, and helping towards the ultimate goal of eliminating malaria."

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Notes to editors:

The study was initiated by Professor Rick Fairhurst from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institute of Health.

What is malaria?

  • Spread by mosquitos, malaria is one of the most common infectious diseases and a global public health challenge.
  • Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by a parasite that is transmitted through the bite of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.
  • The parasite that causes malaria is a microscopic, single-celled organism called Plasmodium.
  • There are six different species of malaria parasite that cause malaria in humans but Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax are the most common types.
  • Malaria is predominantly found in the tropical and sub-tropical areas of Africa, South America and Asia.
  • It is estimated that there were 198 million cases of malaria in 2013 and 584,000 deaths.
  • Around 95% of deaths are in children under the age of five living in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, death rates have fallen globally by 47% since 2000.
  • If not detected and treated promptly, malaria can be fatal. However, with the right treatment, started early enough, it can be cured.

For more information about malaria please see http://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-malaria

Selected websites:

National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

NIAID conducts and supports research--at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide--to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID website. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/

MalariaGEN

The Malaria Genomic Epidemiology Network (MalariaGEN) is an international community of researchers working to understand how genetic variation in humans, Plasmodium parasites, and Anopheles mosquitoes affects the biology and epidemiology of malaria - and using this knowledge to develop new tools to inform malaria control. The network currently involves researchers in more than 40 malaria-endemic countries with a coordinating centre at Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. https://www.malariagen.net/

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world's leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease. http://www.sanger.ac.uk

Wellcome

Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We're a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate. http://www.wellcome.ac.uk

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