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Liz Banks-Anderson
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Five genes that have a role in either protecting or making people more susceptible to severe malaria have been identified in a new international study.

This new knowledge about the process of how and why people develop severe malaria could allow researchers to identify new therapeutics or vaccines to target the disease.  

Published today in Nature Genetics, the international multi-centre study is the largest of its kind to explore the human genetics of malaria. The study collected data on 11,890 cases of severe malaria across 12 locations in countries of Africa, Asia and Oceania where access to health resources to treat the disease can be difficult.

Severe malaria is comprised of a number of life-threatening complications after infection with the malaria parasite.

Of the twenty-seven malaria resistance genes analysed, five genes were found to significantly determine human susceptibility to severe malaria.

Co-author Dr Sarah Dunstan of The Nossal Institute of Global Health, University of Melbourne led the Vietnamese investigation in the study.

She said the results showed that the role of common human genetic disorders in severe malaria are more complex than previously thought.

“Our findings revealed that deficiency in G6PD, which causes a genetic blood disorder, can both reduce risk of cerebral malaria and increase risk of severe malarial anemia, both of which are fatal complications of malaria,” she said.

The study was coordinated by MalariaGEN, a global research consortium, based at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford that uses a genetics approach to understand immunity to malaria.

Dr Dunstan said the findings would contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms and processes at work when progressing to severe disease.

“This consortium has allowed for investigation of genes that influence susceptibility to malaria on a scale that has previously not been achieved. It involved a large number of severe malaria patients from multiple countries which allows us to identify genes that truly have an effect on whether or not you develop severe malaria,” she said. 

The project was led by Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski, the principle investigator of the MalariaGEN consortium.