Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Advanced Search

Search for

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook



Mutations in key gene drive malaria drug resistance

26 January 2015

By Dr Anna Cauldwell

Appeared in BioNews 787

The resistance of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, to artemisinin, one of the most effective antimalarial drugs, has been partially unravelled in a Nature Genetics study.

The rapid rise of artemisinin resistance, especially in South East Asia, is of growing concern and these new findings have the potential to help health authorities predict the progress of future outbreaks.

An international team of scientists, led by Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski, of the University of Oxford and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, analysed 1,612 samples from 15 locations across South East Asia and Africa in a genome-wide association study.

In particular, they identified  20 mutations in the kelch13 gene which were associated with resistance to artemisinin treatment. While kelch13 is thought to be the most important gene driving drug resistance, the scientists discovered that mutations in kelch13 are more likely to emerge when mutations in four other genes are present.

Dr Roberto Amato, first author on the paper, explained: 'Our findings suggest that these background mutations emerged with limited impact on artemisinin resistance - until mutations occurred in the kelch13 gene.'

'It's similar to what we see with pre-cancerous cells that accumulate genetic changes but only become malignant when they acquire critical driver mutations that kick off growth.'

The scientists say that the identification of background mutations is an important development. As the number of kelch13 variants associated with resistance continues to rise, it becomes increasingly difficult to use this gene alone as a marker for genetic surveillance.

Now, researchers might be able to monitor the genetic background in the hope of identifying parasite populations most likely to become resistant.

Co-author Professor Nick Day, Director of the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Thailand, said: 'We are at a pivotal point for malaria control. While malaria deaths have been halved, this progress is at risk if artemisinin ceases to be effective. We need to use every tool at our disposal to protect this drug. Monitoring parasites for background mutations could provide an early warning system to identify areas at risk for artemisinin resistance.'

Chloroquine, the first effective anti-malarial drug, was introduced in the late 1940s. But chloroquine and several subsequent treatments have been rendered useless in some parts of the world by the capacity of the malaria parasite to develop resistance. Each time this has happened, the resistant strains emerged in South East Asia.

Nature Genetics | 19 January 2015
BBC News | 19 January 2015
GenomeWeb | 19 January 2015
Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics (press release) | 19 January 2015
The Scientist | 21 January 2015


22 May 2017 - by Dr Molly Godfrey 
A gene variant which gives protection against the most dangerous form of malaria has been identified...
30 November 2015 - by Ayala Ochert 
Using 'gene drive' technology, scientists have created mosquitoes with malaria-resistant genes that could spread rapidly into wild mosquito populations, potentially wiping out the disease in some areas...

08 December 2014 - by Fiona Ibanichuka 
The US Centers for Disease Control has released a health advisory warning clinicians that flu vaccines will have diminished effectiveness against one strain currently circulating in the US as it has mutated to become resistant...
23 July 2012 - by George Frodsham 
Genetically modified bacteria may be a new weapon in the fight against malaria. Researchers have altered the genome of a bacterium that lives in mosquitos' guts so that it secretes proteins that are toxic to the malaria parasite...
03 October 2011 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
A study analysing three different, but closely related, African populations has identified that a cancer gene is present at a surprisingly high frequency; akin to those usually associated with evolutionary advantages...
28 June 2010 - by Ben Jones 
The Wellcome Trust has joined forces with the US National Institute of Health (NIH) to coordinate a major new genetics study in Africa....

Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust


Public Conference
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Andy Greenfield

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Henry Malter

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

Sandy Starr


Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation