Team of researchers having identified key genes in the parasite causing the disease that enable it to resist treatment by the artemisinin class of
drugs that comprises the current frontline therapy. Their findings were unveiled in a paper published in the journal Science.
Another study warns that these findings are critical in light of increasing evidence that such drug resistance has already been confirmed in Thailand,
Cambodia and Myanmar.
Artemisinin combination therapy consists of different malarial drugs and is currently the main defence against malaria, which afflicts 1.6 million
people and kills 40,000 annually in India. Among the parasites that cause the disease, Plasmodium falciparum is as common as Plasmodium vivax, but
deadlier and accounts for most of India’s malarial mortality.
Resistance fears have been heightened as most promising alternatives are not close to trials or the market.
“The pace of resistance spread is far greater than any potential drugs that could replace artemisinin therapy,” said White. He has been collaborating
with India’s National Institute of Malaria Research to identify instances of resistance in the North-East since last year.
While independent experts say there is no immediate cause for alarm in India, a lack of effective local monitoring and surveillance mechanisms means
that resistant strains will be prevalent long before they are detected.
“Usually, drug-resistant strains are detected much after they are widely circulating. This is partly due to our ineffective monitoring mechanism,” said
A.S. Jauhri, a former adviser to the health ministry on infectious diseases.
In identifying these genes, Ian Cheeseman of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and colleagues sequenced the genomes of 91 P. falciparum parasites
from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Resistance to the latest artemisinin-based drugs has not yet emerged in the last of those countries.After analysing
their results, they found 33 regions on the P. falciparum genome that appear to be under “strong selection” for artemisinin resistance. After taking a
closer look, the researchers were able to narrow this hot spot down to 10 specific genes on one chromosome.