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Researchers have discovered that protection from the most severe form of malaria is linked with natural variation in human red blood cell genes.

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A study from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics and their collaborators have identified a genetic rearrangement of red blood cell glycophorin receptors that confers a 40 per cent reduced risk from severe malaria.

Published in Science, this is the first study to show that large structural variants in human glycophorin genes, which are unusually common in Africa, are protective against malarial disease. It opens a new avenue for research on vaccines to prevent malaria parasites invading red blood cells.

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