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Back To Vidyya Fruit Flies May Lead To A Cure For Malaria

Malaria Parasite Can Be Grown Inside The Fruit Fly

The well-studied lab subject known as the fruit fly, a mere nuisance to humans, now promises to help researchers better understand malaria, a devastating human disease spread to people through the bite of a mosquito.

Scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, MA, have for the first time grown malaria parasites in the fruit fly, creating an easily manipulated model for studying how the parasite develops in insects. Their research, reported in the current issue of "Science", has already identified a part of the insect immune system that naturally attacks malaria parasites. The authors hope the new model will help identify factors critical to malaria transmission, and accelerate efforts to develop transmission-blocking vaccines and mosquitoes engineered to be parasite-resistant.

"Malaria is a major global health problem and a high-priority research area within NIAID," states Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the Institute. "This research provides exciting new possibilities for understanding how the malaria parasite interacts with its insect host."

The malaria parasite, "Plasmodium", must cycle between humans and mosquitoes, specifically, female mosquitoes of the species "Anopheles", to spread within a population. When the mosquito bites an infected person, the insect can ingest the parasites present in the blood. Once inside the mosquito's digestive tract, the parasite reproduces and moves into the body cavity. There it passes through several different life stages before traveling to the insect's salivary glands, where it is released into the blood of another person when the mosquito bites again.

"Plasmodium is not a simple organism like a bacterium or virus," says Mohammed Shahabuddin, Ph.D., an investigator in NIAID's Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases and co-author of the paper. "It has multiple developmental forms, each of which is distinct from the other. One form causes disease in humans, another is swallowed by mosquitoes, still another form reproduces, others move through the insect's intestines, and yet another enters the salivary gland of the mosquito and infects people."

Studying how the parasite interacts with its insect host is difficult, he explains, because the mosquito's biochemical and genetic makeup are not well-defined. Enter the fruit fly known as "Drosophilia". "Our ability to grow "Plasmodium" in the fruit fly is especially fortunate because scientists recently determined the complete sequence of the "Drosophila" genome. So now we can scan the entire genome and identify the specific genes involved in the fruit fly's response to "Plasmodium", and then look for the corresponding genes in the mosquito."

Dr. Shahabuddin and Whitehead's David Schneider, Ph.D., produced their mosquito surrogate by injecting "Plasmodium gallinaceum" -- which causes malaria in chickens -- into the body cavities of fruit flies. The parasites matured through their normal life stages, producing infectious forms identical to those isolated from mosquitoes. Chickens infected with the fly-grown "P. gallinaceum" developed malaria and transferred the parasites to susceptible mosquitoes when the insects fed. These studies proved that "Drosophila" could serve as an effective model organism for growing "Plasmodium".

The researchers used the fruit fly model to discover the way most mosquitoes resist malaria infection. In the fly, immune cells called macrophages engulf and destroy the parasites at an early stage, before they can develop further, suggesting the usefulness of the fruit fly in identifying anti-parasite processes of malaria's natural carrier.

Dr. Shahabuddin notes that the new model allows them to study "Plasmodium"-insect interactions with a new set of genetic and biochemical tools long used with the fruit fly. "These studies will let us identify factors in the insect that are critical to "Plasmodium survival", and may ultimately lead to improved ways of breaking the parasite's life cycle and blocking its transmission."


Reference: D Schneider and M Shahabuddin. Malaria parasite development in a Drosophila model. Science 288:2376-79 (2000).

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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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