LONDON (CNN) — Worldwide elimination of malaria would save hundreds of thousands of lives each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). But eradication remains elusive, because the parasite that causes the disease can evolve to withstand the effects of new malaria drugs and become drug-resistant.
Researchers, however, now believe they have discovered a way to track the spread of drug-resistant malaria, and this discovery may help to finally eradicate the disease. Their study was recently published in the journal Nature Genetics.
"We've seen past cases of (malaria) drug resistance spread in a specific pattern," said study author Nicholas White from Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, and the University of Oxford in the UK. "It starts in Cambodia, spreads across Southeast Asia and crosses over to Africa, killing millions of children in the process."
Resistance to artemisinins - the group of drugs doctors currently use to treat malaria - has been noticed in Cambodia in recent years, sparking concern that an untreatable type of malaria could spread worldwide.
But an international team of researchers says it has identified unique genetic fingerprints for artemisinin-resistant strains of the parasite. This, they say, may help detect and contain this hard-to-treat form of malaria before it spreads worldwide. They remain unsure, however, how soon humans might benefit.
Researchers looked at the genes of 825 malaria-causing parasites collected from 10 locations across Africa and Southeast Asia.
They found three previously undiscovered artemisinin-resistant strains of the parasite in western Cambodia. Each had a specific genetic makeup not seen in any other type of malaria-causing parasite.
This identification of genetic fingerprints specific to artemisinin-resistant malaria parasites is a significant step towards tracking and eventually stopping the spread of this type of malaria, said White.
In the future, the genetic fingerprints identified by the researchers could be used to create a blood test that may predict whether someone with malaria will respond to treatment with artemisinin, said WHO Global Malaria Program coordinator Dr. Pascal Ringwald. "Being able to test people in this way should quickly reveal which parts of the world the resistance has spread to," said Ringwald.
Scientists can then push strategies, such as compulsory use of preventive medicines for travelers coming into these areas, to keep this type of malaria from moving beyond these areas, he added.
The WHO reports that global deaths from malaria have fallen by more than 25% since 2000, but around 3.3 billion people remain at risk of the disease -- most of them children younger than 5.