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Medical test to detect drug-resistant malaria developed by researchers

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 11th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A quick-acting blood test to determine the malaria parasite\'s resistance to artemisinin is helping overburdened doctors in developing nations. Regretfully, the parasite that causes the disease is swiftly becoming more resistant to artemisinin, which remains the most effective drug available to treat the disease.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Malaria continues to kill and sicken those across the Third World. More than 200 million people are infected with malaria each year, with a death toll as high as 1.2 million. Most of the infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

The greatest hedge against the onslaught of the disease is dwindling. "Now what we are seeing is that patients, like for example in Pursat where I work," Rick Fairhurst, a clinical investigator with the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Maryland says. "We have about 60 percent of people [that] still have parasites at 72 hours, which suggests that these parasites could persist in the patient, which results in them not being cured,\" he says, noting that most malaria patients used to be cured with three doses of artemisinin administered over a three-day period. Pursat province is an area in western Cambodia.

Fairhurst, working with Cambodian and French researchers developed a rapid blood test that measures how quickly the malaria parasites in blood samples were killed or weakened by the active ingredient in artemisinin.

Survival rates for the parasites were measured 72 hours after exposure to the artemisinin. If the parasite was still active at that point, the researchers determined that it was unlikely to respond to the drug.

Researchers confirmed these findings in patients infected with malaria. It was found that parasites in blood samples taken from people with drug-resistant infections had only a tepid response to artemisinin.

A test such as this could help public health officials find areas of drug resistance and map its spread. Fairhurst notes that the blood test could also be used to follow individuals treated with artemisinin.

"And if eventually we find if parasites are at a certain level of resistance in the laboratory, they have a certain probability of coming back in the patient, we can then say, \'Okay, this person is not likely to [be cured of their infection],\' and we can come on top with a second drug,\" he said.

There are a couple of newer, more expensive anti-malarial agents that could be used. Experts fear that these too would eventually become ineffective against the parasite.

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