Southern Times

By Gabriel Manyati

August 31, 2012

Johannesburg – A drug that has the potential to treat malaria has been pioneered by researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa.

It is the first time a potential cure has been developed on African soil.

New malaria drugs are urgently needed, as there is there is growing resistance to existing treatments and no effective vaccine to protect people from infection.

Malaria is a huge killer in many other parts of the continent: one in four child deaths in Africa south of the Sahara is due to malaria; and the disease reduces the region’s GDP by an estimated US$12 billion a year.

In South Africa, malaria killed 89 people and affected another 9 866 last year, according to the Department of Health.

Malaria is transmitted by infected mosquitoes, with children and pregnant women being the most susceptible to it.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are an estimated 300 million acute cases of malaria globally each year.

And now a potential breakthrough has been made in South Africa.

“This is truly 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,” said Professor Kelly Chibale, the founder and director of the UCT’s Drug Development and Discovery Centre (H3-D).

It has been hailed as evidence that South Africa is pioneering advancements in the medical field.

The candidate drug, from a class of compounds called aminopyridines, was identified by a team led by Prof Kelly Chibale, working in collaboration with the nonprofit Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV).

The candidate drug, called MMV390048, has so far only been tested on rodents but the results are promising: it appears to be stable and safe, is effective against a variety of strains of the malaria parasite, and requires only a single dose to cure the animals of malaria, Prof Chibale said.

A single-dose cure would be ideal, because it would do away with the problem of people not finishing a course of treatment. If patients stop taking medication because they feel well again but before the parasite has been killed, it gives the parasite an opportunity to develop resistance to the drug.

The drug stays in the body for a long time, preventing regrowth of the parasite, which means it has the potential to block transmission of the parasite from one person to another, he said.

The compound has been patented, and research into its effects on malaria-infected rodents was published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry in March.

It has been selected by MMV’s scientific advisory committee for further clinical research. The next step will be to test its safety in a small group of healthy human volunteers in a phase one clinical trial.

The aim is to produce a drug that costs less than US$1 a day, so that it will be affordable to Africans, said Dr Leslie Street, head of medicinal chemistry and principal research officer at H3-D.

Even if all goes well with the clinical research, a new drug could still be three to five years down the road, he cautioned.

It is not clear at this stage whether the phase one trial will be carried out in South Africa, said Richard Gordon, regional representative for MMV, as there is limited local capacity to do this highly-specialised work.

Further work is also needed to identify a suitable company to manufacture MMV390048 in suitable quantities for the clinical trials.

Prof Chibale and his colleagues worked with scientists from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, the Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation at Australia’s Monash University and India’s Syngene to home in on the candidate drug.

Their work was given a kick-start by researchers at Griffith University in Australia, who screened about six million compounds to identify the aminopyradine series from which MMV390048 was isolated.