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Mosquito fly-ins to help grow malaria - in order to kill it

Date

Bridie Smith

Dr Sarah Erickson demonstrates the equipment she will use at the bio-secure laboratory at Parkville.

Dr Sarah Erickson demonstrates the equipment she will use at the bio-secure laboratory at Parkville. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

MOSQUITOES imported from India and Africa will be key to the experiments conducted at Australia's first laboratory to ''grow'' human malaria.

The $1.5 million insectary, which opens on Thursday as part of a $185 million overhaul of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Parkville, is a strict bio-secure laboratory that will work with live malaria parasites.

Malaria researcher Justin Boddey said the imported mosquitoes, which will also be bred on-site, would effectively be used as factories to produce the malaria parasite.

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''Ultimately our goal is to block transmission and to develop a new anti-malarial drug,'' Dr Boddey said.

The live parasites will be harvested - under a microscope - from the saliva glands of mosquitoes purposely infected after feeding on contaminated human blood. Each mosquito can carry up to 30,000 malaria parasites. The parasites are then transplanted into human liver cells in culture or into live mice bred with human livers.

''This is a fantastic model to study liver-stage malaria,'' he said. ''You can watch the parasite invade and develop and then study its biology.''

The malaria parasite lives in the saliva glands of the mosquito and is transmitted in the saliva when an infected insect bites. Within a minute, the parasite reaches the liver where one can multiply into tens of thousands, though symptoms are yet to be felt by the host.

''It treats the liver like a cocoon where it can transform into a form which is capable of invading the blood cells,'' Dr Boddey said. ''As soon as they burst out of the red blood cells 48 hours later, you get very sick.''

Dr Boddey's malaria research had been limited to the blood stage, but the new insectary means he will be able to take his research back a step and focus on malaria in the human liver - a key stage of infection.

However, not all mosquitoes carry malaria. Sara Erickson, entomologist and manager of the insectary, said the malaria-carrying mosquitoes would be imported from Africa and India and bred in a secure area of the laboratory where light, humidity and temperature echo natural conditions.

Even for research purposes, the importation of the Indian and African malaria-carrying mosquitoes had been permitted by authorities only in recent years, she said.

Malaria is among the top three diseases that kill humans. According to the World Health Organisation, about 3.3 billion people - half the world's population - are at risk of malaria. In 2010, about 655,000 people died of the disease.

The other main killer diseases are HIV and tuberculosis, which will also be studied at the secure laboratory.

''This facility gives us the ability to study these diseases like never before,'' Dr Boddey said.

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