Molecules Versus Malaria

Malaria is a vicious disease that has plagued the human race throughout history. There is an estimated 300 to 500 million cases each year. Malaria is caused by the Plasmodium parasite, but only four species of this parasite can infect humans. Malaria is transmitted through a bite of the Anopheles mosquito. It is a vicious cycle, because the female mosquito must have a meal before laying her eggs. If the human has malaria, the parasite will transfer into the mosquito’s body and continue living and infecting other humans. As you can see, this disease thrived and kept claiming lives, so the hunt for a cure began. Thankfully, three molecules have managed to not only control, but prevent malaria.
The first molecule to have the anti-malarial effect is Quinine. It is found high in the Andes Mountains in the bark of the Cinchona tree. The local people of these regions knew about its healing properties for quite a long time, but this knowledge did not reach Europe until the 1600s when members of the Jesuit order began using it with promising results. Soon, harvesting Cinchona trees became a major industry producing huge profits. Manufacturing Quinine became a great need when trees were becoming scarce and the demand was only growing. There were many attempts at synthesizing Quinine, but it was not accomplished until 2001 by Gilbert Stork and his coworkers. It took so long for Quinine to be synthesized, because it has an extremely complex structure. The bond angles and arrangements of the atoms proved difficult to recreate in the lab. Since Quinine could no be synthesized right away, countries needed an alternate way to supply this molecule. A solution to this was cultivation. The Dutch controlled the Quinine market after making a smart investment in a pound of Cinchona Ledgeriana seeds and carefully harvesting them. Quinine is still harvested in Indonesia, India and in some African countries. It is primarily used today in quinine water, tonic water, and in the heart medication, Quinidine. Quinine was the first molecule to successfully prevent and treat malaria.
The second molecule, DDT, was used more for the prevention of malaria. In 1880, a French doctor named Charles Laveran made a very important discovery in the world of malaria. He discovered Plasmodium, a stage of the malarial protozoa, in the blood of infected patients. Then, in 1897, an English physician found another life stage of Plasmodium in the gut of the Anopheles mosquito. These two discoveries made the connection between parasite, man, and insect recognizable. It also pointed out when the parasite was easiest to attack in its lifetime. The best way to prevent malaria is to get rid of the mosquito, so how do we do that? Insecticides. DDT is a chlorinated molecule that specifically interferes with the insects’ nerve processing. This insecticide decreased the number of malaria cases by hundreds of thousands. But however great the results seem, DDT had major ecological effects. Although DDT was abandoned by the 1970s, the effects still live on today in the lives saved and in the eradication of malaria in North America and Europe.
The third and final molecule used to prevent malaria was found in sickle cell anemia patients. Sickle cell anemia is a blood disorder that affects the hemoglobin in the body. Hemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen around the body. It is comprised of amino acids arranged in two sets of two identical strands. These strands are coiled together around four iron containing entities, sites where oxygen atoms attach. In sickle cell patients, the sixth amino acid is Valine instead of Glutamic Acid on the β-strand. The side group on Valine doesn’t have COOH, making the hemoglobin less soluble, resulting in a change of shape and a loss of flexibility. The side group is also in a different position. Scientists aren’t sure how or why sickle cell patients are immune, they just know that the condition hinders the life cycle of the Plasmodium life cycle. Quinine, DDT, and Hemoglobin have made major historical impacts. The cinchona bark rsulted in the growth of many European countries and British exploration. The anti-malarial effects of Quinine also made European Colonization possible. DDT was a huge success in the sense that it is responsible for the eradication of malaria through Europe and North America. However, it also opened our eyes to the harmful ecological effects of our products and helped us to take action in cleaning up the Earth. Hemoglobin both saved and sentenced people. It prevented malaria, but those in Africa with immunity to the disease were targeted for slave ships in the 17th century. Quinine, DDT, and Hemoglobin have changed our world for better and for worse but these three molecules ultimately saved millions of lives.
In my opinion, I believe that these molecules have faded. Sure, they were great and ‘game changers’ in past times, but in the modern world we don’t need to drink Quinine teas if we’re planning on going camping. We have evolved and found alternatives to these molecules in different insecticides and insect repellants. Yes, these molecules have most definitely faded. DDT is banned in the United States and in most countries, we now have bug sprays, and when have you ever heard someone say “I wish I was a carrier for sickle cell anemia, so I wouldn’t have to worry about malaria!”? As for the authors’ argument, I believe they did have some excellent points in this chapter, but I think that there were some poorly drawn connections and points lacking evidence. For example, in the last paragraphs, they said that the slave trade would not have flourished if it were not for hemoglobin. They then went on to connect how that would have affected the sugar plantations, cotton, industrial revolution, and the civil war. Really? Do they honestly think hemoglobin would have affected the slave trade that much? Sure, the slave trade would have flourished if so many slaves hadn’t gotten ill with malaria, but do they honestly think that malaria is the only illness the slaves caught? I think that Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson made some strong points, but in some areas they were grasping at connections that were just too far out of reach.

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One thought on “Molecules Versus Malaria

  1. Your blog was really well written and hit all of the main points included in the chapter. Your arguments referring to the authors’ lack of connection between causes and effects were spot on! 🙂 I enjoyed reading!

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