SA team makes breakthrough in the fight against malaria – using TB, anti-cancer meds

Business Insider SA
Mosquito malaria South Africa
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  • Two compounds, found in TB and cancer treatments, can eliminate malaria by halting the parasite’s life cycle.
  • This was discovered by a team of researchers, led by University of Pretoria Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz.
  • New malaria medications are vital in combatting drug resistant parasites which have become a growing concern in Africa.
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Chemical compounds, currently undergoing clinical trials in the treatment of tuberculosis (TB) and anti-cancer applications, have the potential to halt the cyclic transmission of malaria. This new discovery, which addresses the growing concern of antimalarial drug resistance, was led by the University of Pretoria (UP) in collaboration with international biochemists.

It's estimated that 440,000 people die from malaria every year, with 90% of these fatalities occurring in Africa. While the fight against malaria, through the widespread use of preventative medications and education campaigns, has dramatically driven down the death rate over the past two decades, the issue of drug resistant parasites threatens the continent’s termination plans.

The malaria-causing parasite, which is transmitted between mosquitoes and humans, is considered a “shape shifter” by UP Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz. It’s the parasite’s ability to adapt to various forms within its human host which makes breaking the transmission cycle, and solving the question of drug resistance, a difficult task.

While the parasite causes disease in humans, it also uses the body as a critical transmission point for re-entering mosquitoes which draw blood from the human host. This human-to-mosquito transmission continues the parasite’s life cycle and although protective drugs remain the most commonly used defence against malaria, medical trials are becoming more focused on shutting down the parasite’s ability to move between hosts.

“To eliminate malaria, it is essential that we have the necessary tools to kill all these different forms of the parasite,” explains Birkholtz, who is a Professor in Biochemistry at UP and South African Research Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control.

“We can then cure patients of the disease but, importantly, also block the malaria transmission cycle. This is the only way to achieve malaria elimination.”

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) aims to eliminate malaria in the region by 2030, but for this to happen medical interventions need to extend further than regular artemisinin treatments. Artemisinin, originally derived from the sweet wormwood herb, is used extensively in the treatment of malaria due to its ability to kill the parasite throughout all stages of its lifecycle.

Overuse of artemisinin in chemical form has, however, led to a rise in resistance in parasites, as noted by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This makes the research, development, and distribution of new malaria treatments even more important.

Using an open-source chemical compound set, called the Pandemic Response Box, Birkholtz and her team were able to isolate compounds from various drugs already in existence and study their effect on all stages of the parasite’s life cycle.

Two compounds have shown promise in crippling the parasite’s life cycle.

The first, a compound derived from TB medication in its clinical phase, blocks cell membrane synthesis, leaving Plasmodium falciparum unable to move freely between host and carrier. The second, an anti-cancer candidate, targets epigenetic mechanisms, which disrupts the parasite’s ability to adapt.

“This is the first time that these compounds were shown to have activity against malaria parasites and since they are not toxic to humans, they show the potential to be developed as antimalarials for both the treatment and elimination of the disease,” says Birkholtz.

Birkholtz was joined by several other South African researchers in studying these compounds. The findings of the study were recently published in the Nature Research journal.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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