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Malaria May Have Evolved to Become Resistant to Best of Malaria Drugs

Update Date: Apr 29, 2013 01:49 PM EDT

An area in western Cambodia has become a hotspot for drug resistance. Researchers fear that the parasite may be able to evade even the best tools that doctors have in their arsenal for defeating the illness. By analyzing the parasite's DNA, researchers believe that it may lead to clues in defeating it.

Researchers sought to analyze the parasite's genes, believing there to be a single parasite that had evolved to be resistant against the best drugs currently on the market against malaria. However, in an analysis of 825 genomes obtained from southeast Asia and west Africa, researchers were shocked to find evidence that indicated otherwise.

According to ABC Science, researchers have found three parasites in western Cambodia that have evolved to be resistant to artemisin, the frontline of malarial drugs. The area is also believed to be the source of resistance against chloroquine, primethamine and sulfadoxine. The three parasites in question appear to be clones of one another, meaning that they had evolved from a founding organism.

The scientists currently believe that western Cambodia is a hotbed for drug resistance because people are bitten by carrier mosquitoes relatively infrequently. While people in many areas of Africa are bitten every few days, people in the region of Cambodia are bitten once a year.

In a human, the parasite multiplies, making clones of itself. Then, when it is bitten by a mosquito, the organism receives a bit of the parasite. In the mosquito, the parasite reproduces sexually but, since it can only mate with clones of itself, very little change occurs.

On the other hand, in portions of Africa where people are bitten by malaria carriers more often, the parasite is able to breed with other strains of the parasite. That means that, in Cambodia, if a person is infected with a drug-resistant strain of malaria, the parasite will remain drug-resistant. Meanwhile, in west Africa, the parasite can lose its drug resistance.

The fear that researchers have is that artemisin fails, since it currently "saves lives" in many portions of Africa. In addition, the Guardian reports that scientists worry that new populations are considered to be at risk for malaria; because scientists have become rather adept at combating malaria in children, the disease no longer is as problematic for children or for pregnant women. Now, men who work outdoors, who would have otherwise built up a resistance to the parasite during childhood, have an increased risk for the parasite.

Scientists hope that malaria can be virtually eliminated by 2035.

The study was published in the journal Nature Genetics.

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