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Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
Malaria genomes cracked
Mosquito, cdc/Jim Gathany
Malaria kills a child every 40 seconds
New ways of tackling malaria - the infection which kills a million people a year - are likely to be developed as a result of a new scientific milestone.

A hundred years after the discovery that mosquitoes transmit the malaria parasite, the complete genetic codes of both the human malaria parasite and the mosquito that spreads it have been deciphered by an international team.


Knowing the mosquito genome may help researchers identify genes involved in the insect's ability to host the parasite

Don Kennedy, Science
"It will be a little while before the knowledge provided by the genome projects is translated into practical tools but this will happen and malaria will finally be brought under control," commented Professor Brian Greenwood, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

"Current attempts to control malaria with drugs and insecticides are in danger of failing because of the problems of resistance and there is no immediate prospect of a vaccine.

"The new information provided by these two genome projects opens up new approaches to the development of drugs, vaccines, insecticides and insect repellents."

Accelerated search

Most of the million people killed each year by malaria are children. Ninety per cent of all malaria cases are in sub-Saharan Africa where it is the main cause of death and a major threat to child health.

The genomes of the deadliest malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, and the most common mosquito species in Africa, Anopheles gambiae, have now fallen to science.

The breakthrough is the result of a six-year project by an international consortium of labs and funding agencies, in both the public and private sectors.

"This research will enable us to define the way that the parasite lives," said Dr Alister Craig of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, one of the institutes involved in the project.

The genetic data for the two organisms are published simultaneously in the scientific journals Nature and Science.

Together with existing knowledge of the human genome sequence, the data should allow an unprecedented understanding of the life cycle of human host, parasite and mosquito.

"It is our hope," said the lead author on the Plasmodium genome, Dr Malcolm Gardner, of The Institute for Genomic Research, in Maryland, US, "that researchers will use the genome sequences to accelerate the search for solutions to diseases affecting the most vulnerable of the world's population".

'Incredible' achievement

The belief is that agents can be developed to target the "Achilles heel" of the disease.

"Malaria in Africa is on the rise, as malaria parasites have developed resistance to anti-malarial drugs and mosquitoes have developed resistance to insecticides," said Don Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science.


If there were an extra 100 million to spend on malaria-vaccine research, I would allocate very little of it to exploring the parasite genome

Professor Adrian Hill, University of Oxford
"Knowing the mosquito genome may help researchers identify genes involved in the insect's ability to host the parasite, or to locate a human to infect."

A long-term goal is to eradicate malaria from the world. One approach is to engineer "malaria-proof" mosquitoes that are unable to carry the parasite.

Dr Andrea Crisanti of Imperial College, London, UK, is a leading researcher in the field.

He says he has never seen such a fast pace of progress in 15 years of science.

He told BBC News Online: "The parasite, like all organisms, has evolved to adapt itself to an environment - and its environment is the mosquito or the human being.

"Now that we know all the genes of the parasite and we know all the genes that shape its environment - the human and the mosquito. I think it's incredible."

Better return

The first mosquito resistant to the malaria parasite could be developed within a year, he adds.

But some researchers are sceptical about how quickly developments will happen in the new post-genomic era.

They think funds would be better spent on vaccines and drugs that are already in the pipeline.

Cover, Science/Cameron Slayden
Researchers from all over the world report their work in Science and Nature
"If there were an extra 100m to spend on malaria-vaccine research, I would allocate very little of it to exploring the parasite genome," says Professor Adrian Hill of the University of Oxford, UK, in a news feature in the journal Nature.

And his caution was echoed by Chris Curtis, Professor of Medical Entomology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who works on practical methods of controlling malaria.

He said: "I'm sceptical that the Anopheles mosquito genome will actually be useful in attempts to control malaria in very poor countries and I have a feeling that projects on the genome are done because molecular biologists think they can be done and are exciting to do.

"The justifications are then added on afterwards. One suggestion is that one could make tailor-made insecticides. However I doubt if these would be affordable by governments with health budgets of $5 per head per year for all diseases."

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The BBC's Chris Hogg
"The more you know about an organism, the easier it is to destroy it"

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