Researchers in Australia have provided the final piece of a
puzzle to develop a new anti-malarial drug, which targets the parasite that
causes the disease and kills it with a salt overdose.
The drug, the first discovery in the fight against malaria
in two decades, holds out fresh hope for conquering the disease, which claims
hundreds of thousands of lives a year and is known for its evolving drug
The malaria parasite, carried to humans by mosquitoes, lives
in red blood cells, which are full of salt. To survive, researchers knew it had
to have a way of filtering salt out of its body."The parasite is quite
leaky, it's letting salt in all the time.
How the study was
But that doesn't matter because it's got a very effective
molecular salt pump that keeps pushing the salt out again," said Professor
Kiaran Kirk, director at the Research School of Biology at Australia National
Research teams in the United States and Singapore had
developed a drug that attacked the protein that makes up the salt pump, but it
wasn't until the ANU researchers tested it that they confirmed it worked
effectively."On the one hand, they had a brand new drug, they didn't know
how it worked," said Kirk, whose team published their work in the journal Cell Host and Microbe.
"We knew a lot about salt and salt pumps, and it was
clear their drug was knocking out our salt pump. That led us to work
together."The drug attacks the salt pump and disables it, causing the
parasite to fill up with salt and die.
Targeting such a basic function is crucial because malaria
tends to evolve quickly, rendering other drugs ineffective. Other drugs that
combat malaria combine or package older drugs together or are altered
First drug in 20
"This is actually the first drug for 20 years to be
genuinely new," Kirk said. "Targeting the pump protein is a structure
that has never been used before to treat malaria."The drug is undergoing
clinical trials and it will be several years at least before it hits the
The other two groups involved are the Novartis Institutes
for Tropical Disease in Singapore and the Genomics Institute of the Novartis
research Foundation. Malaria infects more than 200 million people worldwide
every year and kills around 600 000 of them - primarily children under the age
of five in sub-Saharan Africa.
Experts say one of the most challenging features of this
parasite is its ability to evolve and overcome anti-malarial drugs - a factor
that is undermining global work towards eradicating the killer disease.