Washington: Scientists have discovered a chemical modification in the DNA of human malaria parasite, a discovery that could help develop a new drug to kill the deadly parasite that is becoming resistant to existing drugs.
Researchers from the University of California, Riverside trying to understand the biology of the parasite have discovered a potential weakness - low levels of DNA methylation in Plasmodium's genome.
The weakness "may be critical to the survival of the parasite," said Karine Le Roch, an associate professor of cell biology, who led the research.
DNA methylation is a biochemical process involving the modification of DNA that plays an important role in development and disease.
DNA methylation is a big deal in humans; it is so essential for normal development that abnormal DNA methylation patterns have been linked with many diseases, including cancers and neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's.
Until now, the existence of DNA methylation in the Plasmodium parasite was disputable, Le Roch said.
Researchers were also able to confirm low levels of methylation using classical molecular approaches as well as new sequencing technology.
The DNA methylation enzyme found in Plasmodium is also quite different than the one in humans, Le Roch said, "and because it is different we can eventually find a way to target it and shut it down. If a drug can be developed that specifically inhibits the methylation enzyme, it could kill the parasite in infected humans."
Researchers are keen to find a new drug against malaria, since mutations in the parasite have made it resistant to the most effective drugs on the market.
"We need a new drug every five years because the parasites always find a way to develop resistance against a drug," Le Roch said.
Le Roch's ultimate goal is to map the regulatory networks controlling the entire life cycle of the Plasmodium parasite. She reasons that researchers really need to understand the entire biology of the parasite and how it replicates.
The study appears in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.