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Friday, 20 October, 2000, 12:41 GMT
Malaria parasite gene breakthrough
Malaria infects 500 million people each year
Scientists have identified a single gene that makes the malaria parasite resistant to the main drug used to treat it.

The discovery could make it possible to bring back the drug chloroquine or develop new medications.

Malaria is caused by a parasite carried by the mosquito. Each year, 300 to 500 million people worldwide are infected by the disease and more than a million of them die from it.

After 15 years of work, researchers have pinpointed the changes in the DNA of the malaria parasite that lead to chloroquine resistance.

Chloroquine has been used to combat malaria since the 1940s. It is cheap and effective. But in recent years the malaria parasite has become resistant to the drug, and it can no longer be used in many countries.

Now scientists believe they have discovered how the parasite evades man's efforts to control it with chloroquine.

Resistant strains

Researchers at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases say tiny mutations of a gene on chromosome 7 of the parasite account for chloroquine resistance in Asia, Africa and South America.

Dr Thomas Wellems who led the research said: "To date all evidence supports the notion, and nothing yet contradicts it, that this could be the only gene necessary to confer chloroquine resistance."

It had always been thought that many different genes of the parasite were involved in chloroquine resistance. But Dr Wellems and colleagues found that instead between four and eight small mutations in a gene known as pfcrt seem to be responsible.

This may make it possible to adjust the formula of chloroquine so that the drug will work against the mutant parasite.

It also raises the possibility of developing new treatments or better ways to locate where resistant strains are emerging.

The research is reported in the scientific journal Molecular Cell.

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