The evolution of drug resistance, a key challenge for our ability to treat and control infections, depends on two processes: de-novo resistance mutations, and the selection for and spread of resistant mutants within a population. Understanding the factors influencing the rates of these two processes is essential for maximizing the useful lifespan of drugs and, therefore, effective disease control. For malaria parasites, artemisinin-based drugs are the frontline weapons in the fight against disease, but reports from the field of slower parasite clearance rates during drug treatment are generating concern that the useful lifespan of these drugs may be limited. Whether slower clearance rates represent true resistance, and how this provides a selective advantage for parasites is uncertain. Here, we show that Plasmodium chabaudi malaria parasites selected for resistance to artesunate (an artemisinin derivative) through a step-wise increase in drug dose evolved slower clearance rates extremely rapidly. In single infections, these slower clearance rates, similar to those seen in the field, provided fitness advantages to the parasite through increased overall density, recrudescence after treatment and increased transmission potential. In mixed infections, removal of susceptible parasites by drug treatment led to substantial increases in the densities and transmission potential of resistant parasites (competitive release). Our results demonstrate the double-edged sword for resistance management: in our initial selection experiments, no parasites survived aggressive chemotherapy, but after selection, the fitness advantage for resistant parasites was greatest at high drug doses. Aggressive treatment of mixed infections resulted in resistant parasites dominating the pool of gametocytes, without providing additional health benefits to hosts. Slower clearance rates can evolve rapidly and can provide a strong fitness advantage during drug treatment in both single and mixed strain infections.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Molecular Biology