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DEVELOPMENT REPORT – December 10, 2001: Mutated Gene Protects Against Malaria - 2001-12-07

This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

African and Italian scientists have discovered strong evidence that a changed gene for red blood cells protects against the disease malaria. The changed or mutated gene produces a form of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen to all parts of the body.

Researchers have found that one in ten people in the west African country of Burkina Faso have the mutated gene, called hemoglobin-C. They hope this discovery could lead to new drugs to fight malaria. As many as five-hundred-million people around the world suffer from the disease each year. Mosquito insects infect people with the malaria parasite. The organism feeds on hemoglobin in human blood.

David Modiano of the University of Rome supervised the study of more than four-thousand people in Burkina Faso. He says it is not clear why the mutated gene protects against malaria. But he says the level of protection depends on whether people have one or two copies of the gene. Researchers found that people with one copy of the gene are twenty-six percent less likely to get sick with malaria. Those with two copies -- one from each parent -- have a ninety-three percent reduction in risk. The research was reported in the publication Nature.

There are other mutant forms of hemoglobin that help protect against malaria. For example, scientists have long known that hemoglobin-S protects Africans from the disease. However, people who carry two copies of the hemoglobin-S gene usually die at a young age from a painful blood disease called sickle cell anemia.

Thomas Wellems is a researcher at the National Institutes of Health near Washington, D-C. Last year, he also discovered that hemoglobin-C protects against the severe form of malaria. The study was carried out in the west African country of Mali. However, Mister Wellems says the Burkina Faso research provides stronger evidence that the hemoglobin-C gene prevents all forms of the disease.

Doctor Modiano and Mister Wellems agree that scientists need to discover exactly how the mutant forms of hemoglobin protect against malaria. Once this is known, scientists can develop better ways of treating and preventing the disease.

This VOA Special English Development Report was written by Jill Moss.