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Hundreds of thousands of people die from malaria every year — and as drug-resistant strains of the parasite grow more common, there’s an urgent need for new treatment options.

New research, published Thursday in Science, points to potential targets for those novel treatments. Researchers analyzed 262 Plasmodium falciparum parasites, which cause malaria.

Here’s what scientist Elizabeth Winzeler of the University of California, San Diego, told STAT about the work.


What were you looking for?

We were looking generally for resistance genes that contribute to a parasite’s ability to escape antibiotics. We grew parasites in the presence of something that’s toxic to the parasite. And after they acquired tolerance to this compound, we then sequenced the genomes of the parasites. We were able to identify drug resistance genes that popped up over and over again. We found known ones, but also new ones.

What’s the next step in your work?

We need to do more research to find whether these are associated with clinical resistance. I think they most likely are. It also gives us a number of tools to design better drugs. The objective is to create new classes of medicines where resistance may not be such a problem.


Could this approach be applied to other drug-resistant pathogens?

Absolutely. This is really a modification of a very old technique used with bacteria. But what we’ve taken advantage of is rapid reduction in the cost of whole genome sequencing. If you did this experiment 10 or 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have much of a way to find out why they were resistant. We didn’t have the genetic tools to pinpoint the exact changes that popped up in the genome.