Today, scientific top journal Nature is dedicating two research articles and a review to the genomes of two malaria parasites. The genome of another malaria parasite became known six years ago. Does this help combat the disease?
‘That genomic information from 2002 did not contribute in the fight. Back then, the genomes of the malaria parasite and of the malaria mosquito were published at the same time. We already knew the human genome. Thus, all players were known. It would therefore be only a matter of time and malaria would be solved.
But that's not the case. Six years later, there is one starting point for an insecticide and there are a few new drug targets, parts of molecules against which you can develop a medication. But those are still far removed from a practical application.
The base pair sequences do, however, provide huge amounts of fundamental knowledge. Malaria is caused by several unicellular parasites, which hitchhike with mosquitoes. The genome of the parasite Plasmodium falciparum has been known for six years. Now we are adding Plasmodium vivax, the most abundant parasite, and Plasmodium knowlesi, a monkey parasite which increasingly causes disease in humans.
I do not understand the great attention for unraveling genomes. There are high expectations of genome studies, but it is like using buckshot. You fill up a database with information and you wait and see what it results in.
I see more benefits in existing methods. The most promising is control of larvae. In Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, experiments are ongoing with biological pest control. It concerns bacteria of the type Bacillus thuringiensis which specifically attack the larvae of the malaria mosquito. Very promising. It means that you only need to treat the breeding sites, instead of trying to get everyone under mosquito nets. A wonderful initiative, but it simply doesn't get any attention.’