Scientists discover a new promising malaria drug candidate

An international group of scientists has identified a new antimalarial compound and its two target proteins. The results may lead to development of novel drugs against malaria.

The most efficient malaria treatments in the last three decades have been based on artemisinin combination therapies. The 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for the discovery of artemisinin in the 1970s. Unfortunately, drug resistance against artemisinin is a growing threat against the current drug regime. Thus, the need for developing novel kinds of drugs is pressing. Unless new drugs are found, malaria mortality will almost certainly turn to a new rise.

The newly identified compound, with the code name 49c, targets multiple stages of the malaria parasite by inhibiting two proteases, plasmepsins IX and X. Efficient strategies for malaria treatment and prevention should ideally target three different life-cycle stages of the parasite. 49c blocks the parasites in the blood, liver, and transmission stages. “These results are highly promising and have already raised interest among companies working on drug development against malaria”, says Inari Kursula. She leads the Finnish-Norwegian team in the Swiss-led international collaboration.

Malaria is one of the most devastating global diseases and kills an estimated half a million young children annually. In addition, the disease poses a significant economic burden to the poorest countries and, thus, indirectly also to the developed countries.

This finding is significant, as health threats concerning the poorest regions are a significant burden to the entire globe. Improving living conditions in these regions is required for economic growth, political stability, and controlling migration. Furthermore, pesticides used for controlling the mosquito populations spreading malaria pose a threat to the ecosystem.

In the future, the scientists want to find out, whether the new compound could work as a universal drug against malaria and also other diseases caused by related parasites. An example of these is toxoplasmosis, which is carried by one third of the world population and which can be fatal to fetuses and immunocompromised patients. Other significant diseases in this group are diarrhea caused by Cryptosporidium, another parasite causing significant childhood mortality, and several veterinary diseases affecting pets and livestock.

The results have been published in the high-ranking journal Science. The research team includes scientists from Switzerland, UK, Norway, and Finland.

Professor Inari Kursula, University of Oulu, Biocenter Oulu, and University of Bergen inari.kursula(a)

Last updated: 28.10.2017