By Gatonye Gathura
Scientists have discovered how a rare gene found in a few Kenyans protects them against malaria, raising hope for more effective cures and vaccines.
The gene known as Dantu was first identified in some communities in East Africa in 2017, but scientists say they have now discovered how it works to resist malaria.
The gene, scientists from Kenya and UK said is about two times more effective in protecting against malaria than the best available vaccine.
In one per cent of the population in Kilifi, at the Coast, the gene offers 70 per cent protection against malaria.
“By contrast, the best malaria vaccines currently being administered only provide 35 per cent protection,” said a statement from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, UK released last week.
Dr Silvia Kariuki, of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) who led the study said they had collected samples of red blood cell from 42 healthy children in Kilifi with the Dantu gene.
In laboratory works, the cells were found to have a tightening ability which resisted attacks from the malaria parasite
“At a certain tension, malaria parasites were no longer able to enter the cell, halting their lifecycle and preventing their ability to multiply in the blood,” said Dr Kariuki.
The researchers from Kemri, Wellcome Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge, UK, say the findings are significant in the wider battle against malaria.
“It may be possible to design drugs that imitate this natural process to prevent malaria infection or reduce its severity,” say the researchers. The study has also been published in the journal Nature.
Developing a drug that emulates this increased tension could be a simple but effective way to prevent or treat malaria said Dr Viola Introini, of the University of Cambridge.
In Kilifi, 10 per cent of the population has one copy of the Dantu gene, which confers up to 40 percent protection against malaria. One percent of the population has two copies, conferring up to 70 percent protection.
The scientists now hope they can develop treatments that can transfer this ability to millions of people who suffer from malaria all over the world.
In Kenya, the disease causes about 18,000 deaths annually with indications that malaria is on the increase especially around Lake Victoria region.
The 2020 Economic Survey indicated a huge spike in the number of malaria cases mainly around the Lake Victoria region.
Confirmed malaria cases increased by 18.6 per cent to 4.7 million in 2019, with the Lake Victoria region accounting for the largest number of cases at 74.4 per cent.