The discovery of previously unknown, malaria-resistant genetic mutations commonly found in Kenyan children has increased hopes for a future vaccine against the disease. Scientists published the results in Nature on Wednesday, confirming the existence of the resistant genes.
The research was completed by MalriaGEN, an international group of experts in Africa, Asia and other affected regions. It was one of the largest studies of its kind, incorporating over 20,000 samples from eight different populations in Africa.
In order to zero in on the relevant portions of the human genome, comparisons between thousands of both healthy and sick children were made, allowing scientists to filter out the genetic regions that are not related to malaria resistance.
The scientists discovered that the important regions are located near genes that code for glycophorins, which are proteins connected to a mechanism by which malaria parasites infect red blood cells.
In Kenyan children possessing the right genetic variation, infection risk of severe malaria was seen to drop as much as 40%. It was also observed that this same genetic variation when present in children from western populations did not have as great a benefit, indicating the possibility that genetic variance between malaria parasites from different regions may also be a factor.
Study author Dominic Kwiatkowski commented on the discovery, “It’s often a challenge, when we observe things in the lab, to know what they do in the real world. The genetic change around that area of the genome changes the risk of getting malaria."
The discovery may also hold importance concerning the history of human evolution in relation to chimpanzees. This is due to the location of the genetic variation in close proximity to a region where both humans and chimps share unique combinations of genes. Kwiatkowski believes these genes may therefore have been around for a very long time.