“This is the first time we have been able to measure such major differences between the Fulani and other ethnic groups in the area – differences that appear to occur in a specific type of immune cell,” says Ann-Kristin Östlund Farrants, professor at the Department of Molecular Biosciences, The Wenner Gren Institute at Stockholm University and leader of the international research group.

“Unlike previous research, we have looked at all the genes in different cells of the immune system in order to see if any genes are used differently in the Fulani than in other groups.”

Could lead to new treatments

The so-called monocytes are part of the immune system’s first line of defence, and these are the cells that alert the rest of the immune system. In these cells, the researchers found more than a thousand genes that behave differently in the Fulani that in other people. The reason for is still unknown, but could be caused by epigenetic changes, i.e., chemical changes that affect whether or not a gene is active, rather than gene mutations. The differences in the immune system could thus depend on the lifestyle of the Fulani or on changes in genes that are not directly involved with the immune system.

“If we understand why, we may be able to develop better medicine to cure malaria. So far, we have been able to defeat the parasite, but it becomes resistant to pesticides”, says Marita Troye-Blomberg, professor emerita at the Department of Molecular Biosciences, The Wenner-Gren Institute at Stockholm University and co-author of the study.

“We are trying to understand how the immune system reacts in the Fulani and figure out how to initiate the same type of response in other ethnic groups. If it is possible to fight malaria by triggering the immune system, this method could serve as a model for the treatment of other diseases caused by large parasites”, she says.