In a historic breakthrough, 10 African researchers have discovered a strain of malaria that is resistant to standard drugs, with a dream of finding a cure “within 10 years.”
Some scientists and experts here in Africa believe that the finding, which has been termed “the best news of the year,” means there could be a possibility of a cure.
Over 140 million people died of malaria in 2017 in Africa alone, with the majority of fatalities coming from Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers have no idea whether their findings will lead to a cure, although a leader of the project told Forbes that a cure “would have to be based on something very new.”
Malaria is spread through the bites of infected mosquitoes. Unlike West Nile, whose symptoms can be controlled with drugs and therapy, malaria symptoms are more severe and require emergency treatment and drugs.
Rabie Safarini, head of the mosquito research team that made the discovery, told CNN, “Scientists have for a long time been searching for a less lethal, more drug-resistant malaria. It is my knowledge that this is the best news of the year.”
The 10 scientists studied genetics of Theopheles mosquitoes, which transmit the malaria parasite. The researchers said that they were able to make a discovery about how the malaria parasites replicate in the mosquito’s immune system.
Thanks to the investigators, the malaria parasite genome was analyzed, and was found to differ from malaria strains around the world.
Safarini said that the scientists used thousands of different methods to analyze the genetic data on mosquitoes and discovered that a new strain of the malaria parasite had become resistant to the treatments we have now.
“This new strain is absolutely resistant,” he said.
Safarini, a scientist from Tanzania, added that “we believe this is the best news of the year, and we hope this news will provide a breakthrough in malaria research”.
The researchers now have two versions of the virus, that act as different carriers of the parasite, that they can use to develop resistance against existing drugs. In addition, they have found other ways of making the virus act differently.
“We expect to find a cure, if we can,” Safarini told CNN.
Commenting on the findings, world health minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, from Ethiopia, said “the findings are very important for the global fight against malaria because they raise the possibility of developing a more effective treatment, either alone or combined with existing therapies, within the next 10 years.”
The International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease also lauded the breakthrough.
The union’s executive director, Dr. Gilberto Chicas, said “The world is celebrating today for a brand new drug resistance to malaria that destroys a public health wonder for us.”
Dr. Flavia Bustreo, the director of the World Health Organization’s department of tropical medicine, added that “any progress towards developing malaria treatment would be welcome, although the finding of a new gene in mosquitoes is new and challenging.”
Bustreo said that the discovery raises the possibility of developing new, drug-resistant versions of the malaria parasite, which “could represent an impediment to control efforts against the disease.”
Meanwhile, the ministry of health and sanitation of the African Union, which was among the first to praise the scientists, said that “this important discovery shows that research against malaria and its vector mosquitos is becoming an enormous challenge.”
“We have no hesitation to say that it could have global implications,” Dr. Benoit Gaillard, director of the WHO’s regional office for Africa, said.
“It will also be an invitation to the world to really pay attention and create partnership on this disease,” he added.