In honor of my buddy Keenan taking a trip to Africa this summer and the fact that basically my only biological thoughts this spring have been geared towards parasites, I thought it would be good to think about some of the obstacles that he would be facing as he headed towards Africa for some mission work.
When he gets there he will be faced with a myriad of potential parasitic threats. River Blindness, Sleeping Sickness, and most famously malaria will be lurking, just to name a few. On the malaria front, however, I am happy to report that soon there may be more options to deaden or even eliminate the threat of malaria for African residents and visitors like my friend.
In two papers I have recently read, microbiologists have been working on ways to protect against infection of Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly malarial strain, and the three other species of Plasmodium that infect humans. These experiments were fascinating to study. In one, genes necessary for the parasite to move out of the human liver stage were “knocked out,” effectively stopping the modified, weakened Plasmodium from continuing infection and hurting the mice hosts.
The Knockout step seems to be a promising way to attenuate parasites and bacteria in the future. During the process, crossovers are introduced along the parasitic (in this case) chromosome and the crossovers with successfully disrupted, or deleted, genes are selected for, positively and negatively, in a new growth medium. It seemed pretty involved, but at least in this experiment the ultimate product was a mutant that could not affect the host, but could possibly stay in the system long enough for antibodies to be produced against it. This would hopefully let a vaccinated person acquire immunity from the parasite.
Another option for control that I have read about is a widespread administration of antibiotics like this one. The idea is that Plasmodium populations will be knocked down, and with less numbers in the mosquito, the disease will be less severe and will affect less people. It does not seem like a long-term solution because of possible drug resistance, and it would be hard to administer the drug to a massive amount of people on such a disorganized continent.
Either way, it looks like it might be worth a try. Africa is stricken by parasites and it hinders the ability of the people living there to prosper and have the quality of life that people in “first world” countries have. Our modern science can help to alleviate some of the health problems that cause so many problems there, and it is too bad that the money incentive is not as high for drug makers to put the effort into researching drugs like the more advanced anti-malarial options I have been reading about. It is possible to reduce the threat, though, and we have a recent example. Jimmy Carter may not have been the best, most effective president, but his altruistic work since then has actually been worthwhile and this seems to be what he is now known for. A project of his, the Carter Center, has been working in Africa to eliminate the Guinea worm, and it actually seems like they will do it soon. This is good news, and combined with recent research on other parasites, there actually seems like there is hope that some of the health problems in the Third World will soon be reduced. That progress is being made may not affect my buddy, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be alright.
Publication Information (also embedded, needs pdf)