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Peering at malaria proteins

Dispensing malaria medication in Nigeria (Credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection)

Dispensing malaria medication in Nigeria (Credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection)

Malaria will kill around one million people this year, many of them children in Africa. Delmiro Fernandez-Reyes, a researcher at the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), tells us about his research in urban Nigeria into the blood proteins of children with malaria, and how he hopes that this will one day lead to their quick diagnosis and treatment.

When you think of children with malaria, you might imagine them in rural Africa, miles from medical care. While malaria remains a huge problem in rural Africa, a surprisingly high number of children in large urban areas get the disease too.

The largest urban populations at risk of malaria are in western sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria, with its population of 160 million and some of the largest urban settings in Africa, accounts for a quarter of the world’s cases.

That’s why we’re trying to improve the care of urban children with malaria. One of the most important aspects of treating the infection is determining whether a case of malaria is uncomplicated — where a child has a fever and other symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhoea — or severe, where children can slip into a coma, have breathing difficulty or suffer severe anaemia.

My research team from NIMR has formed the Childhood Malaria Research Group with researchers and doctors at Ibadan College of Medicine in Ibadan, Nigeria. Ibadan is a good place to study the infection because there is malaria transmission all year round. Childhood malaria has a tremendous impact on already overloaded hospitals here.

The partnership runs a Malaria Research Laboratory at Ibadan’s UniversityCollegeHospital, which means we have access to blood and cell samples from the paediatrics ward. We’re interested in looking at the plasma component of blood to see whether there are proteins in the plasma that can be used to help us diagnose the different types of malaria.

To do this we’ve looked at all the proteins — the ‘proteome’ — in the plasma of more than 900 children. Some had severe malaria, some uncomplicated, some another fever-causing infection and others were healthy. This proteome profiling showed that there are patterns that we can use to determine what kind of malaria a child has, and therefore treat them accordingly.

These patterns could form the basis of diagnostic tests. But proteome profiling requires some fairly advanced equipment, not the kind of kit that would be available in most hospitals or clinics. It’s more likely tests will be developed that look for some of the proteins that we’ve identified that are present only in severe malaria, for example.

This could take years, but in the meantime we’ll be working away at our collaboration in Ibadan and continuing to use modern equipment to peer at the proteins associated with this most ancient of diseases.

Delmiro Fernandez-Reyes 

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