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Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University Discover Malaria Achilles Heel

The experiments include seeing how well each of the 12 compounds works, for how long, and whether resistance develops with any of the promising agents

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Infected mosquito. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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September 10, 2016: Scientists appear to have discovered malaria Achilles heel, a weakness common to the multiple stages of malaria infection. In doing so, they have found a compound that cured mice of the disease.

Once it’s entered the body through the bite of an infected mosquito, the malaria parasite, P. falciparum, behaves as a unique organism as it goes through three phases during its life cycle. Experts say most treatments are aimed at only one stage or another. Over time, the parasite can become resistant to therapy, sometimes as quickly as within one year.

But researchers at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have identified a single protein target that appears to be the disease’s weakness, according to senior researcher Stuart Schreiber, a founding member of the biomedical institution.

Malaria Infection. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Malaria Infection.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Malaria protein

“We did discover a novel protein that’s made by the parasite, that’s needed for all three phases of its life cycle, and a series of novel compounds that potently inhibit this protein,” he said. “And we could show in an infected animal that we could kill the parasite in all three phases.”

Schreiber and colleagues published their findings in the journal Nature.

After discovering the protein, researchers screened a unique library of 100,000 small molecules, from which they synthesized about a dozen compounds that they tested in infected mice. The molecules appear to stop the production of this protein in all of malaria’s life stages, effectively killing the disease.

The mice were disease-free for a month, a length of time considered to be a cure. When they tried to infect other mice with the blood of the treated rodents, the animals did not become infected with malaria.

The compound that scientists tested was a one-time oral treatment. Schreiber was quick to caution that what works in a mouse is not necessarily effective in humans. But he is hopeful.

“I am the eternal optimist,” he said. “On the other hand, I do know that what’s ahead is extremely challenging and full of unknowns that can only be addressed by marching forward and running the key experiments.”

The experiments include seeing how well each of the 12 compounds works, for how long, and whether resistance develops with any of the promising agents.

In theory, Schreiber said a drug that works in all three stages of malaria could be taken at any point in the disease cycle, as a treatment and even as a way to prevent the disease.

The researchers note that individuals can remain infectious even while undergoing treatment. So their infection can be spread to someone else through a mosquito bite.

Information about the anti-malaria compounds is being made freely available to other researchers through an online database. The library contains compounds designed and housed at the Broad Institute that are not usually found in the arsenals of pharmaceutical companies.

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Malaria infects over 200 million people each year. Once it has infected a human host, the malaria parasite evolves through a number of unique stages, from initial blood infection to liver infiltration where the parasite matures and reenters the blood stream.

The parasite then goes on to infect and destroy red blood cells, releasing thousands of daughter parasites that invade other blood cells, continuing the cycle of reproduction and infection.

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It is during this later blood stage when symptoms of malaria occur, including very high fever, overwhelming sweating, debilitating nausea and diarrhea. Over half a million people do not survive, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The research by Schreiber and colleagues was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A Japanese drug company, Eisai, has shown an interest in helping to further develop the experimental malaria treatment. (IANS)

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Maths Could Help Understand The Spread of Infectious Diseases

Fear of public pathogens may end up driving the wrong type of behaviour if the public's information is incorrect.

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Maths can help reveal how human behaviour spreads infectious diseases
Maths can help reveal how human behaviour spreads infectious diseases. Flickr

Researchers have found that maths could help public health workers understand how human behaviour influences the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Current models used to predict the emergence and evolution of pathogens within host populations did not include social behaviour.

But adding dynamic social interactions to the new model could allow scientists to better prevent undesirable outcomes, such as more dangerous mutant strains from evolving and spreading.

“We tend to treat disease systems in isolation from social systems, and we often don’t think about how they connect to each other or influence each other,” said Chris Bauch, Professor at Waterloo University in Canada.

Injection and medicines
he team used computer simulations to analyse how the mathematical model behaved under various possible scenarios. Pixabay

“This gives us a better appreciation of how social reactions to infectious diseases can influence which strains become prominent in the population,” Bauch added.

In the study, published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, the team used computer simulations to analyse how the mathematical model behaved under various possible scenarios.

They observed that human behaviour often changes dramatically during the outbreak, for instance, they might start using face masks.

Also Read: Cholera Infection May be on Edge in Yemen, Says WHO

Also, fear of public pathogens may end up driving the wrong type of behaviour if the public’s information is incorrect.

The new modelling could help public responses navigate and better channel these kinds of population responses, the researchers said. (IANS)