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Fruit fly may help scientists to better fight malaria
(CNN) -- The lowly fruit fly, so well studied that its genetic map was decoded before the human one, now promises to help scientists to better understand malaria.
The devastating mosquito-borne illness kills more than a million people a year, mostly in tropical and subtropical areas. "Malaria is a major global health problem and a high-priority research area," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a component of the National Institutes of Health.
People with malaria are subject to cycles of fever, chills, sweating and severe anemia as red blood cells are progressively destroyed.
Now, researchers have found a way to turn a fruit fly into a surrogate mosquito, able to carry malaria and infect chickens with the disease. The approach, documented by the NIAID and the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is reported in Friday’s issue of Science.
"Fruit flies are a geneticist’s best friend. There are many genetic markers, we can conduct genetic screens simply and in large numbers, and we now have the complete sequence of the fly genome," said David Schneider of the Whitehead Institute and lead author of the study.
Because of this, malaria-infected flies will help scientists to study the evolution of the parasitic disease, which takes different forms as it moves throughout the insect’s body and grows, multiplies and becomes able to infect others outside its host. The mosquito’s biochemical and genetic makeup, on the other hand, is less well known.
The malaria parasite, Plasmodium, infects female mosquitoes of the species Anopheles. "Plasmodium is not a simple organism like a bacterium or virus," said Mohammed Shahabuddin, an investigator in NIAID’s laboratory of parasitic diseases and co-author of the report. "It has multiple developmental forms, each of which is distinct from the other."
One form causes human disease, while the rest represent transitional periods in the organism’s development. Being able to study this development more closely may result in discoveries of how to stop it before it reaches its potential to infect.
Parts of the human immune system are very similar to the immune systems of flies, so scientists also will be able to study how people fight infection. This will perhaps lead to new ways to treat malaria.
The primary treatment now is chloroquine, but Plasmodium is becoming resistant, particularly in Africa. "The alternative drugs available today are very expensive and not a viable option for the vast majority of people suffering from malaria, who happen to live in some of the world’s poorest countries," Schneider said.
Much farther down the line, scientists hope the fruit fly studies may be useful in creating mosquitoes that are resistant to malaria. Theoretically, these "designer mosquitoes" could be released into the wild to replace native species. "We’re a long way from changing the genetic make-up of mosquitoes in such a drastic manner, but it may be a very real possibility in the fight against malaria in years to come," added Schneider.
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