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Study points to brain malaria treatments

University scientists have taken part in research that points to new treatments for the most lethal form of malaria.

Researchers have pinpointed a set of genes that enable the malaria parasite to infect blood vessels in the brain.

Infection prevents the flow of oxygen and nutrients, causing symptoms such as fever and coma.

The condition leads to death in about 20 per cent of cases.

Brain infection

Scientists investigated different strains of malaria to identify those that were able to stick to brain cells, and then looked at their genes in detail.

They were able to pinpoint a handful of genes that enable the parasite to bind to blood vessels in the brain, blocking blood flow.

Researchers say that the genes could be useful targets for which to design vaccines or drugs to prevent or treat the disease.

The Edinburgh work may also lead to a tool for testing drugs and vaccines against the disease in the lab.

Partner studies

The research, supported by the Wellcome Trust, is validated by further studies.

Work by the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute pinpointed the same set of genes, while a further study led by the University of Copenhagen has produced more evidence for the importance of the same genes in life-threatening infections using samples from infected children in Tanzania.

All three studies are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s been a 15-year journey since this gene family was discovered, but the coming together of these three studies, which all identify the same key players in severe malaria, is an important milestone. We’re excited to have this knowledge and begin to apply it to developing new solutions for malaria.

Professor Alex RoweSchool of Biological Sciences