Health-e (Cape Town)

South Africa: UCT Scientists Make Malaria Breakthrough

Photo: Ezhil Ramalingam
Infected Anopheles mosquitoes carry a parasite in the genus Plasmodium, the cause of the deadly disease malaria

A compound that has the potential to cure malaria in a single dose has been discovered by researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The announcement was made in Cape Town yesterday by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.

"I am excited by the role that our excellent scientists have played in this milestone in finding a potential cure for malaria and possibly preventing transmission," said Pandor, whose department contributed R25-million to the research.

The compound was 100 percent successful curing malaria in animals, and may also be able to block transmission from mosquitoes to humans and eradicate malaria altogether.

"African-led innovation should be applied to address African health challenges in addition to Africa receiving drugs and other tools discovered and developed outside Africa," added Pandor.

Professor Kelly Chibale, director of the Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3-D) at the University of Cape Town that made the discovery, described the finding as "a proud day for African science and African scientists".

"Our team is hopeful that the compound will emerge from rigorous testing as an extremely effective medicine for malaria - a disease that accounts for 24 percent of total child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa," added Chibale.

In animal studies, the compound cured 100 percent of animals infected with malaria parasites with a single dose and was effective against strains of the parasite that are resistant to current malaria medicine, said Chibale.

In addition to treating the disease, the compound might be able to block transmission of the parasite from person to person and could potentially lead to the eradication of the malaria altogether.

The next step in the research is to prepare the compound for human trials.

Malaria is mainly found along the Mozambique border, but it is rife in other parts of the continent. It is estimated that malaria kills 1 million people in sub-Saharan Africa every year, mostly children under the age of five.

"This will be a gift from South Africa to the rest of the continent," Pandor said.

The compound is from the amino pyridine class and has never been used in the treatment of malaria so the parasite has not built any resistance to it. (Drug-resistance occurs when a parasite is exposed to a drug that breaks it down, but doesn't kill it. The parasite grows stronger, and a larger dose of the drug is required to treat the disease.)

Because the infection will be cured by a single dose, the parasite will not build resistance to it as it will not be exposed to it more than once. Current malaria medication requires four doses of highly toxic medication to treat the disease.

The compound has been selected by the Swiss-based Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) for further development, the first ever clinical candidate developed by Africans as part of a modern pharmaceutical drug discovery programme. If the compound is successful it is expected to be available on the market by 2020.

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