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Battle against malaria gets boost from Canadian researchers

Malaria has been infecting humans for tens of thousands of years, but efforts are on track to stop it from killing people within four.

It was a bold pronouncement Monday on World Malaria Day, given that 780,000 people died from the disease in 2009, but the United Nations is convinced the target can be met, and breakthroughs in genetic research – one of the most important of which came from Canadian scientists – are offering fresh cause for the optimism.

A Saskatoon-based team at the National Research Council has isolated genes in the sweet wormwood plant that produce the compound artemisinin, a key malaria antidote. The genes can then be added to yeast, producing the compound much more quickly, a process being worked on by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.

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"The problem is that the plant has a one-year life cycle between the demand and the supply," said Patrick Covello, the lead NRC researcher on the project. "You had costs going from a few hundred dollars a kilogram to a thousand, then back down to a few hundred."

Growing artemisinin in yeast, however, can be done within weeks, providing a more reliable source. Pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis has agreed to produce drugs using the technology and distribute them, not for profit, in the developing world starting next year.

Scientists at Harvard University, meanwhile, have made progress toward solving one of the greatest problems in the treatment of the disease: its ability to rapidly build up resistance to medications. Last week, the team announced it had uncovered genes that may be involved in creating drug-resistant versions of the parasite. Finding these genes is the first step toward developing drugs that can neutralize their power.

The advance comes not a moment too soon. The World Health Organization warned Monday some malaria infections in Thailand and Cambodia are resisting artemisinin-based drugs and that the problem had to be contained before it spread to other malaria-susceptible parts of the world, such as Africa.

Other researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Washington are developing ways of spreading malaria-resistant genes through mosquito populations, cutting the risk humans will become infected in the first place.

Rather than science, however, the UN said political will is the key to ensuring the spread of treatments, as well as preventive measures such as mosquito nets, continues and that the gains made over the disease in recent years keep going.

"We have shown that current malaria control efforts work," Robert Newman, director of the WHO's global malaria program, said in a statement. "We know exactly what we need to do. The key is to maintain the financial and political commitments to fighting malaria over the next five years so that we can reach these ambitious … targets."

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Malaria's burden

250 million – Annual number of malaria cases. Roughly 85 per cent are in Africa.

780,000 – People killed by malaria in 2009, a significant drop from the estimated 1.5 million to 2.7-million annual deaths in the late 1990s. About 85 per cent of those who die are children under five.

35 – Number of countries that constitute 98 per cent of malaria deaths. The five countries with the highest tolls are Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

2015 – The year by which the World Health Organization hopes to reduce malaria deaths to near-zero.

$12-billion (U.S.) – The estimated annual burden of the disease on Africa's economy.

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11 – Countries that cut in half their numbers of malaria infections and deaths from 2001 to the end of 2010, which the UN dubbed the "decade to roll back malaria."

20% – Share of childhood deaths in Africa caused by malaria. The infection is so common that the United Nations estimates a child can experience as many as five or six bouts of it in an average year.

1.3% – The average annual loss of economic growth in countries with a high-level of infection.

40% – Share of public-health spending in sub-Saharan Africa dedicated to malaria.

Source: World Health Organization

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