In 2015 there were 214 million malaria cases and 438,000 deaths and the mortality rates have been steadily improving as prevention and control measures get better. However, parts of our world are still very susceptible to malaria. This includes sub-Saharan Africa which is home to 89% of all malaria cases and 91% of all the malaria deaths. Malaria is a parasite that is carried by mosquitos and resides in a person’s liver and blood stream. The immature parasite travels to a person’s liver where it matures and divides producing thousands of the parasite that can then go on to infect red blood cells causing them to burst. Malaria causes fever, joint pain, vomiting, anemia, convulsions, respiratory failure, pneumonia, and death. Most of the current treatments are very effective against uncomplicated disease, unfortunately malaria is an adaptable parasite and has developed drug resistance to all but one of the currently used therapies. As of right now there is no vaccine against malaria. Urgent work is needed to find new therapies and cures before malaria becomes a drug resistant nightmare. This is where research from a group at Harvard seems to hold promise.
Published in the journal Nature, the authors screened a collection of synthetic compounds that mimic naturally occurring molecules in their 3D structure and tested them against the malaria parasite. They identified one compound that inhibits the ability of the parasite to make proteins that seemed to prevent the growth of the parasite at all stages of its development. This compound, called a bicyclic azetidine, was able to cure a malaria infection in multiple different animal models and was able to do so at a very low dose. The fact that this compound was able to affect the parasite at all stages of its life cycle is a very promising feature since it could be used to treat the disease at the very earliest stages of infection. Additionally, this compound was able to prevent disease transmission between different animals.
This is obviously a huge step forward in malaria research and a potentially life changing therapeutic strategy. Clinical trials are likely coming up shortly although it may still be a number of years before this makes it to market. Still, the benefit of this drug in an ever growing drug-resistant population of malaria is monumental.