SA researchers may have found a way to cure malaria

Residents in Burkina Faso have struggled to contain malaria. Picture for illustration: iStock

The discovery of new chemical compounds, made by researchers at the University of Pretoria (UP) as part of an international team, could be the answer to treating and eliminating malaria. 

The groundbreaking discovery was published in the Nature Communications journal on Monday.

It involved identifying compounds able to kill several stages of the deadly human malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, which does occur in South Africa, explained UP’s Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control research chair, Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz. 

The malaria-causing parasite is able to take on multiple forms. Some cause disease, and others allow the parasite to be transmitted back into mosquitos, to continue the deadly life cycle. 

Curing malaria, therefore, means also having to stop the transmission cycle, which the new potent chemical compounds will be able to do.

“To eliminate malaria, it is essential that we have the necessary tools to kill all these different forms of the parasite. We can then cure patients of the disease but, importantly, also block the malaria transmission cycle. This is the only way to achieve malaria elimination,” Birkholtz explained. 

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To look for ways to eliminate malaria, the researchers had to look for new chemical compounds able to stop the cycle. Research across Africa and being able to produce the malaria parasite in a laboratory meant being able to test chemical compounds. 

The two compounds that were discovered kill the disease form of the parasite, and block the parasite from infecting other mosquitos. 

The first compound is a clinical candidate used against tuberculosis, by blocking cell membrane synthesis, and the second is an anti-cancer candidate that targets epigenetic mechanisms.

“This is the first time that these compounds were shown to have activity against malaria parasites and since they are not toxic to humans, they show the potential to be developed as antimalarials for both the treatment and elimination of the disease,” said Birkholtz.

Thanks to an invention called the Pandemic Response Box, developed by Switzerland-based Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, compounds used to fight specific diseases can be reused – such as cancer compounds now being used to eliminate malaria. 

MMV project director Dr James Duffy said this kind of discovery had never been more vital. 

South Africa is leading regional malaria elimination efforts, as part of three other front-line countries in southern Africa – Namibia, Botswana and Eswatini.

To read the full research paper as it appears in the Nature Communications journal, click here.

The Citizen/Compiled by Nica Richards