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Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
'Time to put malaria on the agenda'
Children, Africa, who, university of sapienza
Malaria kills more children than probably any other single disease
Researchers have deciphered the genome of the most deadly malaria parasite and that of the mosquito that transmits it to humans. BBC News Online looks at the implications.

What do we now know about the genetics of the mosquito?

The mosquito sequenced, Anopheles gambiae, is the main transmitter of malaria in Africa.

It is sometimes known as the "malaria machine" because it prefers to bite humans and can bite hundreds of times a day.

The mosquito has about 13,000 genes, a similar number to that of the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, whose genome has already been decoded.

The sequencing of the mosquito genome was carried out by more than 150 international scientists, led by the US company Celera Genomics and the French national sequencing centre (Genoscope).

What is the genetic blueprint of the malaria parasite like?

The genome of the parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, is about a hundredth the size of the human genome.

It contains 5,300 genes, more than half of which have no known function and are new to biology.

The 18.5m project was led by British scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, in collaboration with American colleagues from the Institute for Genomic Research and Stanford University, California.

The team of 150 scientists took six years to work out the sequences of the DNA "letters" which make up the malaria parasite's genetic material.

The sample used for the analysis came from a 10-year-old Dutch schoolgirl who contracted malaria near Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, in July 1979.

How might this information help in the fight against malaria?

We now know the genetic instructions for building the deadliest malaria parasite as well as that of its two hosts, the mosquito and the human.

Buried somewhere within this wealth of genetic information is every possible target for the drugs and vaccines that might stop a mosquito transmitting malaria or kill the parasite that causes the disease.

As Dr Neil Hall of the Sanger Institute puts it: "We've presented [the scientists] with the haystack, now they've got to find the needle."

One strategy is to compare our genes with those of the malaria parasite. The goal is to find a key biological pathway that exists in the parasite but not in people and then develop a drug to stop the parasite. This should combat malaria without harming human health.

Other scientists are working on ways to boost the immune system of the mosquito, so that it is unable to pick up the parasite and pass it on to humans.

How long will it be before we have new treatments?

According to Dr Chris Newbold of the University of Oxford, UK, new anti-malaria drugs should be available "in a relatively short time scale", perhaps five years.

Vaccine development will probably take longer, at least 10 years, says Dr Fotis Kafatos of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, where some of the mosquito sequencing work was carried out.

Will the new drugs be expensive?

The funding for future research is expected to come from a variety of sources including development agencies, public health organisations and pharmaceutical companies.

Mosquito net, who, tdr, Janet Hemingway
If every African child slept under a bednet, deaths would decrease by 20%
Any new drug or vaccine will not come cheap. According to Professor Brian Greenwood of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine even the simplest package of measures, such as bednets and effective drugs, would cost $2-3bn a year in Africa.

"This is the time to put malaria on the agenda," says Dr Kafatos. "It is one of the major diseases of humanity. It is heavily under-funded relative to its importance."

Will the data be available to all, especially African scientists?

Researchers have been releasing the genetic data for the malaria parasite freely on the internet throughout the project.

It will be made available on CD to scientists working in areas where there is no easy internet access.

The mosquito genome information is also available freely on a genetic database for all to use.


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