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scientists comment on breakthrough in understanding of malaria

The comments follow the announcement, published in both Nature and Science, that the genomes of both the malaria parasite and the mosquito have been sequenced, raising hopes for the eventual development of a cure for malaria.

Brian Greenwood, Professor of Tropical Medicine at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Director of the Malaria Centre and the Gates Malaria Partnership, said:

“The simultaneous publication of the genomes for the most virulent of the malaria parasites, and of the main mosquito vector of this parasite in Africa, is a major step forward in the control of this infection which is still responsible for over a million deaths a year. Current attempts to control malaria with drugs and insecticides are in danger of failing because of the problems of resistance and there is no immediate prospect of a vaccine. The new information provided by these two genome projects opens up new approaches to the development of drugs, vaccines, insecticides and insect repellents. It will be a little while before the knowledge provided by the genome projects is translated into practical tools but this will happen and malaria will finally be brought under control.”

Chris Curtis, Professor of Medical Entomology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who works on practical methods of controlling malaria, said:

“I’m skeptical that the Anopheles mosquito genome will actually be useful in attempts to control malaria in very poor countries and I have a feeling that projects on the genome are done because molecular biologists think they can be done and are exciting to do. The justifications are then added on afterwards. One suggestion is that one could make tailor-made insecticides. However I doubt if these would be affordable by governments with health budgets of $5 per head per year for all diseases.

“The idea of engineering strains of mosquito non-susceptible to malaria parasites is becoming fashionable again. However, the problem is unsolved of how to make these strains useful by driving the genes concerned into wild populations, and especially how to ensure the necessary absolutely unbreakable linkage of these genes to a driving system.”

Carlos Morel, director of the World Health Organisation’s Tropical Diseases Research Program, said:

“This is an extraordinary moment in the history of science. At last, the enormous power of modern technology is penetrating the mysteries of an ancient disease, a disease that continues to kill millions. Now the most advanced tools of science are at last being trained on one of the biggest killers in the developing world.”

Robert Sinden, Professor of Parasite Cell Biology at Imperial College London, said:

“This is a fantastic step forward – but the real challenge now is for governments and pharmaceutical companies to show that they are prepared to invest the money to control this disease.

“Academically, one of the most exciting things is the combination of understanding the parasite genome and a significant part of the parasite proteome. It’s the interplay between these two blocks of information that will educate us about how the parasite controls its growth and development, and thus how we can develop safe strategies to kill the parasite. To have the mosquito genome at the same time gives us enormous potential to study the interaction between the parasite and the mosquito. It’s my personal belief that any prospect of future control of malaria is most likely to come from our understanding of this interaction rather than an analysis of the parasite in humans.”

Professor Alan Kingsman, Chief Executive, Oxford Biomedical PLC, said:

“This is undoubtedly an important step forward in the development of anti-malarial drugs. But it must be remembered that a genome sequence or an array of proteome spots is the beginning not the end of the drug development process. Sequencing genomes is no longer the key rate-limiting step in defining and exploiting new commercially important drug targets. Rather it is the definition of those key genes that encode the targets for intervention in disease.

“That definition comes from clever integration of biological knowledge by clever people doing smart experiments. This takes time, it will take place mainly in innovative biotech companies and it will yield results. In this case it will yield novel approaches to treating and preventing malaria. I hope that for this particular disease WHO and the various international organisations will work with the biotech and pharmaceutical companies to deliver this progress to the developing world as well as western holiday makers and military personnel.”

Andrea Crisanti, Professor of Molecular Parasitology at Imperial College London, who led the team that produced the first GM mosquito, said:

“This great discovery will make a massive difference to those of us working on a cure for malaria. It is like giving directions and a route map to someone who is hopelessly lost in the middle of a city. Now we can see we are and where we can go.

“In my area of research it will give us an insight into the gene that can be used to interfere with parasite development in the mosquito or the gene that is involved in sex determination of an insect.”

Dr Tony Holder, Head of the Division of Parasitology at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research, said:

“The genetic blueprint of the parasite will give us potential targets for new drugs and vaccines against malaria. And it will inform our work at NIMR where we’re studying how the parasite gets into red blood cells. If we can work out how to stop it entering these cells we can stop the disease.”

Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the School of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Surrey, said:

“Malaria kills more children than probably any other single disease, particularly in the poorest countries. It is both a cause of poverty and is caused by poverty. Eradication of this scourge would probably do more to promote Africa’s development than any other single action. Determining the genome sequence of both the malarial parasite and the mosquito vector are massive achievements that bring the hope of eradication closer. The biggest challenge for the future will be in translating this high technology research into low technology control strategies that are appropriate for the developing world.”

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