Scientists close to isolating malaria genes that kill 2 million worldwide

  • @SteveAConnor
THE BATTLE against malaria, which kills about two millionpeople a year, has entered a new phase with the publication of the first genetic map of the infectious microbe.

Scientists believe the map, published in the journal Nature Genetics, will boost the search for new vaccines. However, the question of who will own the patents on any commercial discoveries from the project is raised by the presence of Craig Venter on the team of 15 scientists who have produced the map. Dr Venter is engaged in the race to sequence the entire human genome and his company, Celera Genomics, has made no secret of the fact that it wants to patent as many genes as possible to exploit future commercial gains.

Malaria is caused by a blood parasite, plasmodium, which has a complicated life cycle involving the infection of both humans and its "vector" species, the mosquito. Plasmodium goes through stages of development in its host species and this, with its ability to develop drug resistance, has made it hard to combat. By finding the precise sequence of genetic "letters" that make up plasmodium's 7,000 genes, scientists hope to find ways of fighting it with tailor-made drugs and vaccines.

"Once we know all the proteins the parasite makes, we'll know how to attack it," said Dr Sharen Bowman, who works on sequencing the malaria genome at the Sanger Centre in Cambridge. The genetic map of the most lethal form of malaria, Plasmodium falciparum, gives scientists such as Dr Bowman a chance to double-check the correct position of a gene on each malarial chromosome.

Scientists hunt for genes by chopping up chromosomes into smaller, overlapping segments. The new "optical" map is made by sticking the malaria chromosomes to a glass slide and cutting them up in situ - a quick way of seeing the correct sequence. "The map is a completely independent way of checking that our chromosome segments are in the right order," Dr Bowman said.

The map was pieced together by a team from several American institutes, including the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, to which Dr Venter is affiliated. Dr Bowman said the international consortium of scientists is publishing the information as soon as it is discovered, which should prevent other individuals from patenting the same data. One area of intense commercial interest and research is the hunt for the malaria gene that has enabled the parasite to become resistant to chloroquine, the drug that was the first line of defence against the illness.

The fastest-growing strain of meningitis could be eliminated from the population within 14 months, the Government's chief medical officer said yesterday. Professor Liam Donaldson said a mass vaccination programme launched yesterday against meningitis C would offer protection to all the country's 14 million children by December next year.