Blood test for drug-resistant malaria strain shows promise

A group of researchers from Thailand, the U.K. and elsewhere have developed a blood test that can identify people who have drug-resistant malaria.

New Scientist reports that the discovery builds on previous work that found resistance to the malaria drug artemisinin in patients with mutations in kelch13, a gene from the malaria parasite Plasmodium. Through their work with 1,240 people being treated for malaria in parts of Africa and South Asia, the blood test showed some serious utility. According to the article, nearly all patient cases that displayed resistance to artemisinin came from kelch13 mutations.

Knowing this information is crucial, because clinicians can adjust treatment when resistance becomes clear. As the article noted, however, the researchers' work revealed something more. Treatment-resistant Plasmodium still responded to artemisinin, thanks to a longer treatment cycle.

Their findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, could help fuel the concept of "blanket therapy," an approach envisioned for both Africa and South Asia where patients receive antimalarial drugs regardless of whether they are sick, the article pointed out. The idea is controversial because of the scope and cost, but further trials are envisioned.

About 1,500 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the U.S. annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though most stem from travelers who pass through areas prone to malaria such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Globally, 219 million clinical cases of malaria were documented in 2010, according to World Health Organization statistics cited by the CDC, with about 660,000 deaths.

- here's the full New Scientist story
- read the NEJM details

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