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Magnetic fields may hold key to malaria treatment, UW researchers find

Researchers at the University of Washington have discovered a method of treating malaria with magnetic fields that could prove revolutionary in controlling the disease the World Health Organization calls one of the world's most complex and serious human health concerns.

Henry Lai, UW research professor of bioengineering, says the malaria parasite Plasmodium appears to lose vigor and can die when exposed to oscillating magnetic fields, which Lai thinks may cause tiny iron-containing particles inside the parasite to move in ways that damage the organism.

"If further studies confirm our findings and their application in animals and people, this would be an inexpensive and simple way to treat a disease that affects 500 million people every year, almost all in third-world countries," Lai said. According to the World Health Organization, as many as 2.7 million people die of malaria every year, approximately 1 million of those children.

In the past two decades, the emergence of drug-resistant malaria parasites has created enormous problems in controlling the disease. Lai says his method could bypass those concerns because it is unlikely Plasmodium could develop a resistance to magnetic fields.

Malaria is spread by female Anopheles mosquitoes. The organism first invades the liver, then re-emerges into the bloodstream and attacks red blood cells. This is what causes malaria's hallmark symptoms: fever, uncontrolled shivering, aches in the joints and headaches. Infected blood cells can block blood vessels to the brain, causing seizures and death. Other vital organs are also at risk.

Lai's research appears to take advantage of how the parasites feed. Malaria parasites "eat" the hemoglobin in red blood cells of the host. They break down the globin portion of the hemoglobin molecule, but the iron portion, or the heme, is left intact because the parasite lacks the enzyme needed to degrade it. This causes a problem for the parasite because free he
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Contact: Rob Harrill
rharrill@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
29-Mar-2000


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