Media Release: Tracking the global movement of malaria parasites and their variants 

Tuesday, 2 March 2021
Peer review: PLOS Genetics.
Funding: NIH, University of Melbourne

An international collaboration of researchers have developed a computational method to identify  malaria parasites as they move around the world with their human hosts - key to measuring impact of elimination campaigns.

Led by University of Melbourne Professor Karen Day, Laboratory Head at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) and Bio21, the team collected parasites from 23 locations in 10 countries.

Malaria is the world’s most deadly parasitic disease, killing over half a million people every year. It is hampered by drug resistance and the first recently developed vaccine offers only partial protection.

The team sequenced parasite DNA from 1,248 malaria infected patients and established a global database of 32,682 variant surface antigen genes to track down to country level, from where parasites originated. Findings from the 10-year project were published in PLOS Genetics
“In malaria, we have to deal with tens of thousands of variants in one endemic area. This database is a significant step forward in tracking those variants, and understanding how malaria is moving around the world,” Professor Day said.

“The impact of this is that we can follow contemporary patterns of parasite migration in a cost-effective manner without having to sequence the whole genome. The signature of the past is very much visible in what we found but now we can see if anything changes. It gives us another window into how we can adapt parasite genomics to inform malaria surveillance.”

Professor Day said these evolutionary findings have translational implications in providing a diagnostic framework for geographical surveillance of malaria.

“It can also inform efforts to understand the presence or absence of global, regional and local population immunity to specific variants,” she said.

“Our next step would be to grow our database in the Asia -Pacific, with more collaborators and opportunities for regional training.”

An example of what Professor Day and her research team are striving towards is similar to FluNet,  a global web-based tool for influenza surveillance by the WHO although she says “ with malaria parasites being much more diverse we are talking about really big data” .

This research was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Grant Number: R01-AI084156) and Fogarty International Center (Program on the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID), Grant Number: R01-AI149779) both at the National Institutes of Health, USA and also supported by the University of Melbourne.

A Perspective was published about this work in PLOS Genetics.

About the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity: 

Finding solutions to prevent, treat and cure infectious diseases and understanding the complexities of the immune system requires innovative approaches and concentrated effort. This is why The University of Melbourne – a world leader in education, teaching and research excellence – and The Royal Melbourne Hospital – an internationally renowned institution providing outstanding care, treatment and medical research – have partnered to create the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute); a centre of excellence where leading scientists and clinicians collaborate to improve human health globally.     /DohertyInstitute      @TheDohertyInst #DohertyInstitute 

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