Using Data Power to Fight Malaria



Using Data Power to Fight Malaria

Serdang, Malaysia – In an effort to promote the field of data science and bioinformatics, Dr. Olivo Miotto from the Centre for Genomics and Global Health, Oxford University, UK, who is currently based at the Mahidol-Oxford Research Unit, Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Bangkok, gave a public lecture on 23rd May 2017 at Perdana University. He shared on the impact of big data in the fight against malaria and its surveillance.

Malaria remains one of the major infectious diseases of the developing world, killing hundreds of thousands of children below the age of five every year. Much progress has been made in the fight against this disease in recent years, largely due to the widespread adoption of artemisinin combination therapies (ACTs). Artemisinin is an antimalarial drug derived from the sweet wormwood plant and is recommended by the World Health Organisation as the first-line treatment for malarial infections. ACTs combine fast-acting artemisinin with a longer-lasting partner drug to clear the parasites. However, over the last few years, the Plasmodium falciparum parasites which cause malaria have developed resistance to artemisinin and now, worryingly, also to piperaquine, an antimalarial partner drug that is widely used in Southeast Asia. As a result, there is a widespread concern that the spread of resistant parasites will undermine recent achievements in malaria control.

The MalariaGEN P. falciparum Community Project was created to build a large genome (DNA) data resource to allow different populations of parasites to be compared across time and geographical regions, which will help reveal patterns characteristic of resistance to the drugs.

The project is based at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the University of Oxford, and the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok, and involves the collection of blood samples from patients in malaria-endemic countries, and the extraction of whole-genome DNA sequences from the parasites in the blood samples.

The data has enabled interesting and useful patterns to emerge. Dr. Miotto and his team discovered that in Western Cambodia, where artemisinin resistance emerged, resistant parasites formed complex population patterns, and a number of genetic markers for the resistance were identified. This provides a way to spy on future DNA changes in malaria parasites, and to better target drugs for effective control and elimination.

This effort is a major application of bioinformatics, a new and emerging field of data science that blends biology, computer science and mathematics. Perdana University School of Data Sciences, through its Centre for Bioinformatics, offers a variety of short- and long-term education and training programmes in bioinformatics and data sciences (http://perdanauniversity.edu.my/pucbi/). There is currently a great worldwide demand for individuals with skills in these fields.

This public lecture was held in conjunction with the second anniversary of the Perdana University School of Data Science (PU-SDS) and is the first of many to come as part of the Data Science eXchange initiative (DSXi). More information on DSXi can be obtained at http://dsxi.perdanauniversity.edu.my.

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Photo caption (left to right): Perdana University’s Vice Chancellor,Professor Dr Zabidi Azhar Hussin gives a token of appreciation to Dr. Olivo Miotto from the Centre for Genomics and Global Health, Oxford University, UK


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