Unfortuitous discovery helps combat malaria

Scientists have discovered a naturally occurring strain of bacteria that can prevent mosquitoes from transmitting malaria to humans.

They discovered it by accident when a mosquito colony in one experiment did not develop the malaria parasite.

According to the researchers, the microorganisms could be used to combat one of the world's oldest diseases, which kills 600,000 people annually. Currently, tests to determine its safety in the actual world are being conducted.

Scientists at a GSK-operated research facility in Spain made the discovery after observing that a colony of mosquitoes used for drug development had ceased transmitting malaria.

"The infection rate in mosquitoes began to decrease, and by the end of the year, no mosquitoes would be afflicted with the malaria parasite," explains Dr. Janneth Rodrigues, who directed the program.

The crew froze the samples from their 2014 experiment and returned to investigate what had transpired two years later. 

Additional research revealed that a naturally occurring strain of bacteria, TC1, had prevented the development of malaria parasites in the mosquitoes' digestive tracts. "Once it colonizes the mosquito, it remains for the duration of the insect's existence," explains Dr. Rodrigues. He mentioned that they discovered that it was the bacteria that reduced transmission in the insects.

According to new data published in the journal Science, the bacteria can reduce a mosquito's parasite burden by as much as 73%.

The bacteria function by secreting a small molecule called harmane, which inhibits the early growth stages of the malaria parasite in the mosquito's digestive tract.

In collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, GSK scientists discovered that harmane can be ingested orally by the mosquito when combined with sugar, or absorbed through its epidermis when it comes into contact with the insect. 

This opens up the possibility of applying the active compound to surfaces in areas where insects rest. More tests are being conducted right now in Burkina Faso at a facility for confined field research known as MosquitoSphere.

The purpose of these tests is to determine how successful and safe it would be to employ harmane on a large scale in the real world.

By turning this bacteria-based intervention into a product, researchers are working toward the goal of gaining access to a new weapon in their arsenal against one of the diseases that has been around for the longest time.

About 620,000 individuals are lost to malaria every year, the majority of whom being children under the age of five. Vaccines have now been created, but the process of distributing them throughout Africa is still in its infancy at this point.

Gareth Jenkins, who works for the nonprofit Malaria No More, expressed optimism regarding the recent discovery.

One youngster dies as a result of malaria every minute. The worldwide burden of malaria has been significantly reduced thanks to the significant progress that has been made, but we need new and inventive instruments in our armory in order to get back on track.

It is possible to put an end to the threat posed by malaria throughout our lifetimes if a robust innovation pipeline is established.