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Doctors find materials that can resist malaria

A recent study uncovers genetic material that plays a role in resisting malaria.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center discovered genetic material in red blood cells that may slow the growth of malaria, a parasitic disease carried by mosquitoes. The genetic material—small units of ribonucleic acid, more commonly known as microRNA—participate directly in the gene regulation of malaria parasites, thereby preventing them from propogating, according to the study.

Individuals with sickle cell anemia may experience milder cases of malaria than those with normal red bloods cells because their microRNA composition and type are different, the study finds.

“The microRNA found in sickle red blood cells are different from those found in normal red blood cells,” said Greg Lamonte, graduate researcher and lead author of the study. “We saw that two microRNAs, miR-451 and Let-7i , slowed the growth of the malaria parasites when we grew them in culture.”

Lamonte noted that sickle cells possess higher levels of the two microRNAs—miR-451 and Let -7i—preventing malaria parasites from propagating. When the researchers blocked these microRNAs from functioning in sickle red blood cells, they also reduced their ability to protect against malaria.

The findings of this study give a stronger overview of the host-parasite interactions of malaria, said Dr. Jen-Tsan Chi, senior author and associate professor at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. Eventually, this kind of research may lead to the development of therapy methods for malaria.

“If you think about it, so many diseases affect red blood cells, such as malaria and various forms of anemia,” Chi said. “Also, red cells are easier to study because they are so readily available in the blood.”

Because the current understanding of malaria is still limited, there is still a long way to go before tangible therapies can be developed, Lamonte said. The results of the study give researchers a greater understanding of the malaria parasite, which could allow researchers to target specific DNA transcripts in the near future.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 600,000 people die from malaria each year, most of them being children.

“There are many different ways that sickle red blood cells affect malaria, but our study is only on one part of a multi-faceted resistance,” Lamonte said. “It’s difficult to study malaria because it is resistant to genetic manipulations, but we may be able to use gene targeting with the information we have down the road.”

For researchers, the next step forward is to determine whether microRNA in red blood cells can be used for diagnostic purposes, Lamonte said. By checking microRNA levels in red blood cells, it may be possible to see who is more susceptible to malaria.

“We want to continue studying potential mechanisms to see how red cells resist malaria,” Chi said. “We would want to see how host genetic material can regulate pathogen genes.”

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