Nearly half the world is at risk from malaria, with the disease killing more than 420,000 people globally.
Worse, malaria – caused by invading parasites – is developing resistance to drugs.
They’ve used DNA fingerprinting to show how the malaria parasite shuffles genes to create different strains and hide from our immune system.
This trick allows the parasite to remain undetected and re-infect the same people, much like the flu.
The findings help explain why people can’t develop immunity to malaria. They also highlight control programs should now focus on looking at the impact not just on the number of infections but the structure of diverse strains of the parasite.
The malaria parasite is a single-celled microorganism (known as a Plasmodium) that infects red blood cells and is transferred from human to human via mosquitoes.
Professor Karen Day said that every parasite can switch its genetic structure around, allowing each one to look different to the immune system.
“This provides the possibility for the malaria parasite to keep re-infecting the same people because it exists as different “strains” that can persist for many months,” she said.
The researchers are now fingerprinting and modelling malaria strains in larger human populations through time.
Dr Kathryn Tiedje, a researcher in Professor Day’s team at the University of Melbourne is currently looking at how control methods might impact the diversity of malaria.
“Ultimately, the question we all want to answer is, how can we defeat humanity’s most unrelenting enemy?”
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