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First Malaria Cell Atlas Could Help Researchers Develop Drugs And Vaccines Against the Mosquito-Borne Disease

The Malaria Cell Atlas was developed by using advanced single cell RNA sequencing techniques to isolate individual parasites and measure their gene activity.

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Updated:September 6, 2019, 11:15 AM IST
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First Malaria Cell Atlas Could Help Researchers Develop Drugs And Vaccines Against the Mosquito-Borne Disease
Representative image. (Image: Reuters)
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Malaria kills nearly half a million people, including a child every two minutes, annually across the world. With more than 200 million new cases reported every year, Malaria remains to be one of the deadliest mosquito-borne diseases.

The scientific community has long stressed for a concerted treatment of malaria, dengue, zika, chinkungunya and other mosquito-borne diseases. Now those calls may finally be answered as the non-profit Wellcome Sanger Institute and its collaborators have created a Malaria Cell Atlas. This will help researchers develop drugs and vaccines against the mosquito-borne disease caused by the Plasmodium parasite that spreads to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes.

The endeavor provides the first detailed map of the behaviour of individual malaria parasites. The Malaria Cell Atlas was developed by using advanced single cell RNA sequencing techniques to isolate individual parasites and measure their gene activity.

“We’ve created an atlas of gene activity that spans the complete life cycle of the malaria parasite. This is the first atlas of its kind for a single-cell organism. The malaria parasite’s life cycle is the key to research into this disease and the Malaria Cell Atlas will help us truly understand the parasite in order to effectively control malaria,” Dr Virginia Howick, joint first author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, was quoted as saying.

Andrew Russell, joint first author and a PhD student at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said, “Using the Malaria Cell Atlas, we’ve inferred the roles of parasite genes that until now were entirely unknown.

“We do this through ‘guilt-by-association’: by looking at functions of previously studied genes, we can predict roles of unknown genes if they show similar activity patterns to known genes. This provides a new opportunity to find novel drug targets,” he added.

The freely-available Malaria Cell Atlas gives the “highest resolution view of malaria parasite gene expression to date”. To get this, the researchers have isolated and measured the gene activity of 1,787 individual malaria parasites from 10 stages across their complete life cycle.

The team used another single-cell technology to examine a further 16,000 individual parasites from the blood stages of malaria that infect mice, monkeys and humans.

They found that, despite the different hosts, the gene activity behaviour across the three malaria parasite species was similar.

Parasites in the blood of three Kenyan people being treated for malaria were also collected.

The team used the Malaria Cell Atlas as a reference to examine individual “wild” parasites from two different human malaria parasite species for the first time.

Dr Mara Lawniczak, lead author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said, “To defeat malaria we need to understand all the tricks the parasite uses throughout its life cycle. The Malaria Cell Atlas is the first detailed map that gives us insight into how different one parasite is from another, even when they are genetically identical.”

He added, “We face the problem of malaria becoming more resistant to current malaria drugs. As new drugs are introduced, we hope the Malaria Cell Atlas will act as a reference to understand how parasites change their behaviours in response to our efforts to control them. Knowing this will help reveal how to corner the parasites and ultimately eliminate them.”

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