Malaria is the scourge of tropical nations, crippling its victims with symptoms like debilitating fever, convulsions and nausea, and killing half a million people annually. Now researchers in South Africa say they may have a one-size-fits-all solution, in the form of a new drug that could work with just one dose.
The drug is a synthetic molecule in a class of compounds known as aminopyridines, which are precursors to many drugs for neurological disorders. Scientists at Australia’s Griffith University were screening more than 6 million drug compounds and suggested aminopyridine for further study. Then a team of scientists led by Kelly Chibale at the University of Cape Town tested several of these compounds, settling on a suitable molecule that will now be tested further.
Most cases of malaria in Africa are caused by a parasite called Plasmodium falciparum, which lives in the salivary glands of female mosquitoes and is transferred into the human bloodstream when the bug bites.
This new drug killed the parasites instantly, according to reports from Cape Town media and the UCT — even those that are resistant to other anti-malarial drugs. Animal tests have not shown any negative side effects. Clinical trials on humans are set to start in 2013, South African government officials announced this week.
Efforts to curb malaria have extended all the way to mosquito eradication and genetic modification, yet the search for a cure-all has proved elusive. Malaria treatment involves a course of drugs, but in some cases the parasites have evolved to resist them.
South African officials trumpeted this new drug as a potential lifesaver for hundreds of thousands of people — and found on their own soil. “This is the first ever clinical molecule that’s been discovered out of Africa, by Africans, from a modern pharmaceutical industry drug discovery program,” Chibale was quoted saying.
Much more research remains to be done, and it could be at least seven years before any pill derived from this new compound is distributed throughout malaria-afflicted regions. But still, if this works, it could be an enormous breakthrough in a field that has haunted humanity — and the efforts of scientists to thwart it — for centuries.