Breakthrough research has revealed a new drug that may prevent the spread of malaria, and also treat people suffering from the deadly parasitic disease.
The findings, published on Aug 30, 2019, in the Science journal, were delivered by an international team of scientists led by the University of Glasgow (Glasgow) in the UK, which included Indian scientist and the university’s Wellcome Centre for Integrative Parasitology Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellow Dr Mahmood Alam, the study’s first author.
Malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease, currently affects over 200 million people, and kills nearly half a million people – mostly children – every year. (Editor’s note: Malaria affected an average of 12.7 in 100,000 Malaysians in 2017, with 0.04 deaths in 100,000 Malaysians.)
It is caused by the Plasmodium parasite, which infects humans through the bite of a mosquito. The parasite then grows in our liver and in red blood cells in our blood. The parasites can change in the blood to take on a male or female form, which can reinfect mosquitoes when they bite and suck blood from those infected.
Now, scientists led by Glasgow’s professor of molecular pharmacology Dr Andrew Tobin, have discovered a drug that can kill the parasite at all three stages of its life cycle: when it is in the liver, in red blood cells and before sexual development.
The new drug works by stopping the activity of an essential protein called PfCLK3, which controls the production/activity of other proteins that are involved in keeping the parasite alive.
By blocking this protein’s activity, the drugs can effectively kill the malaria parasite, which not only prevents it spreading, but also holds the possibility of treating the disease in humans too.
Said Dr Mahmood: “In this study, we identify that targeting CLK3 of the malaria parasite is a validated and successful strategy to develop new drugs against malaria.
“We show that a small chemical compound that targets CLK3 can kill the malaria parasite at multiple stages, including infection in liver and red blood cells, as well as at the gametocyte stage – a stage that transmits malaria to mosquitoes.
“Thus, we show that targeting CLK3 provides the advantage of blocking malaria transmission from one individual to another, in addition to a cure for the disease.
“Further, we provide evidence that targeting CLK3 will be a successful approach in killing multiple species of the malaria parasite, including Plasmodium vivax – a species of malaria that is widespread in Asian countries, including India.
“It provides an immense personal satisfaction to be able to contribute to something that would help the healthy living of humans across the planet.”
Prof Tobin said: “We are tremendously excited about these new findings and hope they pave the way for the first step in the eradication of malaria.
“Our work has shown that by killing the parasites at the various stages of parasite development, we have not only discovered a potential cure for malaria, but also a way of stopping the spread of malaria from person to mosquito, which can then infect other people.”
The study was funded by Wellcome, the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and Tres Cantos Open Lab Foundation.
The work was done in collaboration with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, the University of California in the United States, University of Leicester in the UK, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, and the MRC Unit: The Gambia.