A health worker performs a blood test on a child at a clinic near the Thai-Myanmar border. For more than a decade, the fast-acting artemisinin has been a potent weapon against malaria, but there are fears that resistance to the drug is spreading. Photo: AFP / Pornchai Kittiwongsakul
A health worker performs a blood test on a child at a clinic near the Thai-Myanmar border. For more than a decade, the fast-acting artemisinin has been a potent weapon against malaria, but there are fears that resistance to the drug is spreading. Photo: AFP

Researchers in Australia say a particular antibody is far more influential in combating malaria than previously understood – a discovery which they say has major implications for developing an effective vaccine.

Antibodies are proteins in the blood produced by the immune system to fight infection.

Researchers at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne say the antibody known as IgM was widely thought to play only a cameo role in the  to , by activating initially before disappearing when the leading antibody — known as IgG — takes over.

But the new research, published in the journal Science Advances, shows IgM acts as a co-lead with IgG to block and clear malaria infection in the blood.

“The research team was able to show that IgM can persist for long periods to sustain the fight against malaria,” study senior author, and Burnet Institute Head of Malaria Immunity and Vaccines Laboratory, Professor James Beeson said.

“Importantly, the study showed that IgM can stick to malaria in the blood, kill it, and block malaria from infecting red blood cells and replicating within them.”

Prof James Beeson, head of the Malaria Immunity and Vaccines Laboratory at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne. Photo: Burnet Institute

Professor Beeson said the next step was to better understand why the immune system generates IgM  in response to malaria infection, rather than just relying on IgG antibodies. And they also need to determine whether vaccines that stimulate the  to produce IgM antibodies “give better protection against malaria.”

NASA project in Myanmar

Meanwhile, NASA is developing a new technique to forecast malaria outbreaks in Myanmar from space, as the emergence of new drug-resistant strains in Southeast Asia threatens efforts to wipe out the deadly disease globally.

The goal of worldwide malaria eradication within a generation, by 2050, is “bold but attainable”, a report released recently in The Lancet argued.

Malaria cases and deaths plummeted by more than 90% in Myanmar between 2010 and 2017, World Health Organization (WHO) figures show, a success largely credited to better rural health services and wider use of treated bednets.

But the country still has a higher prevalence than its neighbors in the Mekong region.

Several drug-resistant strains are taking hold across Southeast Asia and it is feared these could migrate to Africa where more than 90% of cases globally occur.

A file shot of a baby under a mosquito net in the southern Philippines. Scientists in Bangkok have warned that resistance to key anti-malaria drugs has spread across mainland Southeast Asia. Photo: Reuters/ Jorge Silva
A baby under a mosquito net. Scientists in Bangkok say resistance to key anti-malaria drugs has spread across mainland Southeast Asia. File photo: Reuters/ Jorge Silva

To counter this threat, NASA is deploying “cutting edge” spatial technology to tackle malaria outbreaks before they happen, scientist Tatiana Loboda said.

Deforestation, hotspots

She is applying her expertise in geospatial and risk modelling – coupled with a background in predicting wildfire outbreaks in the US – to identify potential hotspots so medicines and health workers can be mobilized in advance.

“A lot of people use a little spatial modelling… but not to the same depth and capabilities as we’re doing here,” said Loboda, a professor at Maryland University.

The satellites provide meteorological data, including land surface temperatures, atmospheric water content and information about land cover, including forest, shrubland, settlements or water.

These are then combined with socio-economic data gathered by teams of researchers carrying out in-depth surveys with sample populations in the field.

The project is only in its third year but Loboda’s team has already seen a high correlation between the rate of deforestation and the disease.

Migrant workers, troops

One unproven theory is that these areas – often dotted with logging sites, mines and plantations – are host to a disproportionate number of migrant or seasonal workers, bringing with them new strains of the parasite.

The Maryland University team is working closely with local government and military scientists, collecting data from civilians and troops respectively.

But that brings challenges in a country where the armed forces keep their operations shrouded in mystery.

“We’re not allowed to ask where they go,” Loboda said in Yangon, describing it as “like working blindfolded”.

This is coupled with a lack of access to Myanmar’s myriad conflict areas.

“I’m used to working with big data,” Loboda bemoaned. “I want to blanket the whole country with random locations… but I can’t.”

The project is not immune to geopolitics either.

The state of US-Myanmar relations can complicate meetings with the military in the capital Naypyidaw.

“Sometimes I can go, sometimes I can’t,” Loboda said.

With reporting by AFP

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