Scientists have stumbled upon a potential breakthrough in the fight against malaria. Researchers at a Spanish research facility affiliated with the GSK pharmaceutical company have identified a naturally occurring strain of bacteria that could halt the transmission of malaria from mosquitoes to humans.
The discovery unfolded when a colony of mosquitoes being used for drug development displayed an unexpected resistance to the malaria parasite. This accidental finding has opened new doors in the battle against one of the world’s oldest and deadliest diseases, claiming the lives of 600,000 people annually.
“The infection rate in the mosquitoes started dwindling, and so by the end of the year, the mosquitoes just would not be infected with the malaria parasite,” says Dr Janneth Rodrigues, who led the program.
The team froze the samples from their 2014 experiment and went back to them two years later to explore what had happened.
“Once it colonizes the mosquito, it lasts for the entire lifespan,” says Dr Rodrigues.
“And we found out that, yes, it is the bacteria which was responsible for reducing transmission in those mosquitoes.”
Further studies revealed that the bacteria produces a small molecule known as harmane, which inhibits the early stages of malaria parasite growth in the mosquito’s gut.
In conjunction with Johns Hopkins University, the GSK scientists discovered that harmane could be ingested orally by the mosquito if mixed with sugar or absorbed through the insect’s cuticle upon contact.
This presents an opportunity to treat surfaces in mosquito-resting areas with the active compound.
The research, published in Science magazine, indicates that the bacteria can reduce a mosquito’s parasite load by up to 73%, making it a promising tool in malaria combat.
A Step Closer to Ending Malaria Threat
To advance this discovery into a practical solution, additional trials are underway at the MosquitoSphere, a contained field research facility in Burkina Faso. These trials aim to assess the effectiveness and safety of using harmane at scale in real-world scenarios.
Malaria continues to be a significant public health challenge, claiming around 620,000 lives annually, with young children being particularly vulnerable. While vaccines are in development, they are still in the early stages of deployment, especially in Africa.
Gareth Jenkins, representing the charity Malaria No More, hailed the unexpected bacteria discovery as a ray of hope. He emphasized that new and innovative tools are essential to stay on course in reducing the global burden of malaria.
“Malaria kills a child every minute. Significant progress has been made in reducing the global burden of malaria, but to get us back on track, we need new and innovative tools in the arsenal.
“With a strong innovation pipeline, it is possible to end the threat of malaria in our lifetimes.”
In the ongoing battle against malaria, each step towards progress brings hope. The latest discovery of a naturally occurring bacteria that can disrupt the transmission of the malaria parasite is a testament to the power of unexpected breakthroughs.
The journey to harnessing this potential game-changer, however, continues as scientists conduct further trials to bring this innovative intervention from the lab to the real world.
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