Aussie scientists’ huge step towards eradicating disease

Duncan MurrayNCA NewsWire
Not Supplied
Camera IconNot Supplied Credit: News Corp Australia

Aussie scientists have taken a huge step towards eliminating malaria, a disease that has long outsmarted researchers.

A team from the Australian National University has cracked a key piece of the puzzle about what makes malaria vulnerable to some drugs and resistant to others.

Dr Sarah Shafik from the ANU Research School of Biology explained that the biggest challenge with treating malaria was how quickly it adapted.

“The thing that makes it difficult to treat is that the parasite develops resistance to all of our drugs so quickly,” she said.

“The former gold standard drug chloroquine, which was used to treat malaria for 20 years, has failed.

“We could deploy a drug or a combination therapy and within a few years it just develops resistance to that treatment and then we have to go back to the drawing board.”

Feeding mosquito
Camera IconThe malaria parasite can adapt to become resistant to common treatments, making beating the disease a game of cat and mouse. Credit: News Corp Australia

Dr Shafik and her team identified two proteins within malaria – PfMDR1 and PfCRT – that diverted drugs away from where they would have a killing effect and concentrated them in “safe zones”, rendering them ineffective.

“We’ve known about these proteins for some time but what we didn’t know is how they were involved in conferring drug resistance for the parasite,” Dr Shafik said.

A simple blood test can be done on someone with malaria to work out which types of the proteins they have.

“Once we have that information, then we would know from our data which drugs would be best to use on that certain strain of parasite that is carrying those certain types of the protein in order to kill the parasite,” she said.

The breakthrough could go a long way to making the treatment of malaria cheaper and more efficient – which in poorer countries where the disease is more prevalent remains one of the greatest barriers.

In 2020 malaria killed an estimated 627,000 people worldwide.

“Right now the biggest issue is just getting the right drugs to the right patient, but it takes money,” Dr Shafik said.

“A lot of the malaria cases are in Africa where they’re not well off and it’s hard to get those people tested when they need to be and then get the right drugs to them quickly.”

A child underneath a mosquito net, Kenya, Africa
Camera IconYoung children in poorer countries are the most vulnerable group to malaria. Credit: Supplied

Groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are working to eradicate malaria worldwide, which Dr Shafik hopes is now a step closer.

As well as malaria, the discovery could also help inform the development of new types of cancer treatments, the researchers hope.

“One of the malaria proteins that we characterised is in the same family as one of the proteins that is produced by human cancer cells,” Dr Shafik said.

“So with the method that we’ve developed to characterise the malaria protein we could apply that to the cancer protein, and if we can stop the cancer protein from pumping drugs out of cancer cells, that would make our chemotherapy treatments way more effective.”

Originally published as Aussie scientists’ huge step towards eradicating disease

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