Malaria about to be stung

2012-09-01 14:58

Scientists make progress towards cure for deadly disease

The road to creating safe and effective medicine is expensive, arduous, and littered with disappointing results.

But a team of scientists headed by Professor Kelly Chibale at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is cautiously optimistic that they may have found an effective cure for malaria.

The disease kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, with the majority of those deaths in Africa.

Malaria is also one of a host of tropical diseases historically neglected by the pharmaceutical companies that drive research.

There is little economic incentive to provide drugs to a population that would not be able to afford the prices necessary to recoup the huge research costs.

It is too early to cry “cure”, but Chibale and team have in their hands a compound that is ready to be clinically tested – a significant milestone in itself.

They have also developed the compound, named MMV390048, within two years.

“The standard period to get to where we are is six years but we were blessed to have done it in two,” Chibale told City Press.

If the compound is indeed a cure, the involvement of the Swiss-based non-profit organisation, Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), means it would cost $1 (R8.45) or less per treatment.

Zambian-born Chibale holds the department of science and technology research chair in drug discovery and is founding director of the UCT Drug Discovery and Development Centre.

He is also an engaging defender of the pharmaceutical industry and believes it has unfairly been given a bad rap.

Not only are Chibale and his team of 10 post-doctoral scientists, in collaboration with MMV, the first from Africa to discover a potential single-dose cure for malaria with a bearing on eradicating the disease, they also have the first compound researched on African soil that has entered preclinical development.

They spent two years screening thousands of molecular compounds and subjecting promising results to extensive and exhaustive tests to reach this point.

Part of the process was sending the compound to independent companies in China, Europe, the UK and the USA to undergo rigorous safety checks.

A negative result would have put paid to their hard work and it took a nail-biting six months before Chibale and his team got the thumbs up in June for the results.

What the team have now – thanks to an international collaborative research network, funding from the department of science and technology and the creation of the South African Research Chairs Initiative – is a compound that is ready to be tested on humans.

The clinical trials could take another six years or more, said Chibale, but if the compound is found to be safe and effective in humans, it will have a big impact on disease control in Africa.

There are numerous anti-malarial drugs on the market, but drug regimes are often complicated, expensive and increasingly ineffective because of ever-more resistant strains of malaria.

MMV’s activities have been key to the compound’s development.

In 2008, the MMV’s chief scientific officer, Dr Tim Wells, launched an ambitious plan to test millions of chemical samples to identify new compounds active against the blood-stage form of human malaria.

In collaboration with Professor Vicky Avery at the Eskitis Institute at Griffiths University in Brisbane, Australia, and the proprietary compounds made available by drug-discovery company BioFocus, a library of potentially useful compounds was created.

This library of over 40 000 compounds was screened at Griffiths University in Australia.

Promising actives from this screening were followed up by Chibale and team at H3-D to further develop the compound now making headlines.

The compound shows potent activity against multiple points in the malaria parasite’s lifestyle, Chibale explains.

This means the compound could not only become part of a single-dose cure, but may also be able to block the transmission of the parasite from person to person.

It’s been a hectic process of disappointments and “eureka!” moments, but Chibale considers challenges of life in the laboratory to be the “beauty of science”.

There are also “back-up programmes”, he explains: other discoveries that will be subjected to further research at a later date.

This means that if the compound turns out not to be the silver bullet, Chibale and his team will have other ways – they hope – to reach new medical frontiers.

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