Research Confirms Gene’s Role in Resistance to Malaria Drugs

A new study using parasite samples from Cambodia, and carried out with the help of Cambodian researchers, confirms that a particularly deadly strain of malaria’s growing resistance to drugs is caused by mutations to a single gene.

The joint study by researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia and others, published over the weekend in the journal Science, confirms earlier evidence that mutations to the K13 gene of Plasmodium falciparum can confer the mosquito-borne parasite with drug resistance.

“This finding provides public health officials around the world with a way to look for pockets of emerging resistance and potentially eliminate them before they spread,” the researchers said in a statement from Columbia University Medical Center.

Resistance to artemisinin-based anti-malarial drugs was first detected along the Thai-Cambodian border in 2007 and has since been confirmed in Burma, Laos and Vietnam as well. The health community’s greatest fear is that the resistance, as happened with previous front-line anti-malarials, will show up in Africa, where the parasite kills the vast majority of its victims.

“The bad news about our finding is that it shows that resistance can arise through single mutations in one gene and pop up anywhere, at any time,” lead researcher David Fidock of Columbia said in the statement. “That’s quite different from past instances with former first-line drugs, when complex sets of multiple mutations were required and resistance spread only as the mutated parasites spread.”

But Mr. Fidock said the study also bore some good news, as the resistance conferred by K13 mutations was relatively weak.

While malaria has grown increasingly resistant to artemisinin-based drugs in Cambodia, it has claimed fewer lives here in recent years thanks to a concerted containment effort. Last year, the government recorded only 12 deaths from the parasite and a nearly 40-percent drop in infections from 2012.

Cambodia is aiming for zero malaria deaths in 2015 and no new infections by 2025.

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