Targeting Malaria With Science

Jonathan Strickland

Marwani22/iStock/Thinkstock
Marwani22/iStock/Thinkstock

In the movies, scientific study flashes by in an instant. From a cinematic point of view, this makes sense -- you can't just have the camera linger on a group of researchers indefinitely as they toil over petri dishes and enormous spreadsheets. But in reality, that second outcome is much more realistic. Sometimes, science is hard and it takes time to make progress.

Take the example of Plasmodium falciparum. That's the parasite that causes malaria. Malaria is a devastating disease that affects more than 200 million people every year, killing more than half a million of them. To make matters worse, the disease is becoming resistant to the drugs doctors typically administer to patients.

The parasite is largely a mystery to us even though we've sequenced its genome. How could that be? It's because we only know the sequence of genes, not what all the genes actually do. It's like looking at a directory in a mall and none of the stores have labels on them. You know the layout of the mall but not where anything actually is. With the case of Plasmodium falciparum, we're talking about 2,500 mystery genes.

It takes a lot of time to figure out what any individual gene is responsible for -- sometimes up to a year. Why so long? Part of the reason is that researchers have to wait for the parasite's DNA to break at the right spot for them to be able to study a specific gene. But scientists at MIT have pioneered a new way to disrupt genes within a DNA strand, potentially giving engineers a way to target specific regions.

They call the new technique CRISPR. They use an enzyme called Cas9 like a scalpel and a strand of RNA to act as a targeting system. The RNA looks for specific gene sequences and the Cas9 makes precise cuts, isolating the gene. The process takes much less time than the traditional methods.

The engineers have already tested the technique on previously studied genes to make sure it works and met with success. Next, they'll look to target genes they've yet to study. They hope to be able to develop new courses of treatment that targets specific genetic sequences and reduce the impact of malaria on millions of people.

Perhaps one day we'll live in a world in which scientists wave a vaguely magical electronic device at an unknown substance to get a full understanding of what it is and what it can do. For now, identifying the unknown requires curiosity, innovation and scientific rigor. Fortunately, we have a seemingly endless supply.