Malaria parasites infect more than 200 million people every year and kill approximately 400,000 – 90 per cent of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Anti-malarial drugs have halved deaths since 2000, however now the parasites which cause the disease are developing resistance to these drugs and this resistance is spreading. In order to control and eventually eliminate malaria, we need to better understand the distribution of this resistance, and this requires innovative ways of monitoring mosquito populations and levels of both antimalarial and insecticide resistance.
DNA sequencing can provide up-to-date information about which drugs a parasite is resistant to since, as Dr Busby explains, ‘Drug resistance is the result of mutations in the parasite genome’. Until now, genome sequencing has been expensive and lab-based, but recent advances in mobile genetic sequencing mean that there is now the opportunity to take this technology into the field to provide information to malaria control programmes.
Driving a specially-equipped Land Rover Discovery, complete with a mobile genetic sequencing laboratory, the Mobile Malaria Project team, which also includes expedition medic Dr Isaac Ghinai and expedition scientist Jason Hendry, has trialled portable DNA sequencing technology to better understand how it can be used in different locations. From Walvis Bay in Namibia through Zambia and Tanzania to Kilifi in Kenya, the team has collaborated with colleagues from a number of African research centres working on the front line of malaria eradication.
At the start of its journey the team visited the University of Namibia to meet malaria researchers and discuss their work. It also met with the Elimination 8 Secretariat to understand the regional coordination work being carried out to make malaria elimination initiatives more effective. There was also a visit to a malaria clinic to understand more about the impact of the disease.
The team moved on to Zambia where it worked with colleagues at the National Malaria Elimination Centre (NMEC) in Lusaka and the Tropical Disease Research Centre in Ndola. Here it completed the first trial of the mobile genetic sequencing kit, successfully isolating four genes from samples provided by the NMEC. Dr Busby said, ‘There was an enormous sense of relief, and a little bit of pride, that we were able to generate genetic sequence data on parasite samples within three days of arriving at NMEC. We were honoured to have an opportunity to understand how malaria research works in Zambia and to demonstrate this new technology.’
After leaving Zambia, the team drove through Tanzania to get to its next stop in Kenya where it worked with the KEMRI Centre for Global Health Research. The team gained ethical approval to collect mosquitoes for sequencing, and successfully sequenced the full genome of ten samples, allowing it to fully trial the feasibility of the mobile lab.
It’s been quite a journey, as Dr Busby points out, ‘We’ve been met with nothing but positivity, intrigue and excitement. This has been an opportunity to experience the research world of scientists on the front-line of malaria research and I think people have appreciated our attempts to show them new technology that is relevant to their work. I hope that anyone who has an idea to do something a bit different and to get out there and see the world will see that it is an eye-opening, refreshing and, ultimately, humbling learning experience.’
The Land Rover Bursary has been run by the Society on behalf of Jaguar Land Rover since 2007 and offers £30,000 and the use of a vehicle to make a challenging journey that promotes a wider understanding or enjoyment of geography. www.rgs.org/landroverbursary
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