What is malaria?
Malaria is a disease is caused by Plasmodium parasites that invade human red blood cells. The parasites are transmitted from person to person by blood-sucking Anopheles mosquitoes. Despite progress in fighting the illness, nearly half the world’s population—3.4 billion people in 97 countries—are at risk. In 2012, there were 207 million reported cases and 627,000 deaths, with the majority of deaths among African children under the age of five (WHO Malaria Report, 2014). As well as causing much human suffering, malaria is a massive socioeconomic burden for many of the poorest countries in the world. Developing an effective malaria vaccine and fighting antimalarial drug resistance remain major global public health challenges.
Why is genetic information important for controlling malaria?
One of the main obstacles to controlling malaria is an evolutionary ‘arms race’ that is going on between parasites, mosquitoes and humans. Parasites and mosquitoes are continually acquiring genetic changes to overcome human efforts to control the disease with anti-malarial drugs, insecticides and other public health interventions. The other side of the coin is that human populations exposed to malaria have also acquired genetic changes that help to protect against malaria—but some of these are a mixed blessing as they can lead to other disorders such as sickle cell disease.
What is MalariaGEN?
The Malaria Genomic Epidemiology Network is a global community of researchers working together through a series of multi-centre projects to understand how genome variation in human, Plasmodium and Anopheles populations affects the biology and epidemiology of malaria, and to use this knowledge to develop improved tools for controlling malaria. Our goals are:
- To expedite the development of an effective vaccine by discovering human genetic variants that determine natural resistance to malaria, and by discovering Plasmodium genetic mechanisms that enable parasites to evade the human immune system.
- To develop new approaches for monitoring anti-malarial drug resistance and preventing it spreading, by analysis of Plasmodium genome variation, population structure and recent evolutionary selection.
- To support innovative strategies for vector control by analysis of Anopheles genome variation, population structure, gene flow, insecticide resistance and anti-parasitic host defence.
To address these problems we’ve established policies for data sharing that allow large-scale collaborative projects to be conducted across multiple populations, bringing together detailed clinical and epidemiological data with state-of-the art technologies for genome sequencing and web tools for data analysis. The work of the network is coordinated by a Resource Centre whose members are primarily based at Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.