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30th January 2020

Malaria discovery brings hope for new treatments

Malaria discovery brings hope for new treatments

Research holds clues for beating Malaria and COVID-19.

New research into malaria suggests targeting enzymes from the human host, rather than from the parasite itself, offers affordable and resistance proofed options for drug development and could hold clues for beating COVID-19.

The research has been led by RMIT University’s Dr Jack Adderley and Professor Christian Doerig, with vital contributions from the University of Adelaide malaria researcher Dr Danny Wilson who is funded by The Hospital Research Foundation.

The study, published in Nature Communications this week, outlines a strategy that could save years of drug discovery research and millions of dollars in drug development by repurposing existing treatments designed for other diseases such as cancer.

“We found that the parasites that cause malaria and which live inside human red blood cells, rely on several different host-cell signalling enzymes for survival,” Dr Wilson said.

“What is really promising is that these signalling enzymes, called kinases, are major targets of drug development across a number of human diseases, including cancer.

“When we treated the malaria parasites with drugs that specifically target certain human kinases, the parasites died very quickly. So with this knowledge, we can now jump on the back of existing cancer drug discoveries and look to repurpose a drug that is already, or soon will be, available for use in people.

“This will significantly reduce the cost of developing much needed new drugs to help save the lives of 400,000 children suffering from malaria per year”

Battling drug resistance

This approach is also expected to address the issue of drug resistance which is again weakening available options for malaria treatment. Study lead Prof Doerig, RMIT, said the findings were exciting as drug resistance is one of the biggest challenges in modern healthcare.

“We are at risk of returning to the pre-antibiotic era if we don’t solve this resistance problem, which constitutes a clear and present danger for global public health. We need innovative ways to address this issue,” Prof Doerig said.

“By targeting the human host and not the malaria parasite itself, we remove the possibility for the parasite to rapidly become resistant by mutating the target of the drug, as the target is made by the human host and not by the parasite.”

The paper is the outcome of an RMIT-led international collaboration with researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, The University of Adelaide’s Dr Danny Wilson (Malaria Biology Laboratory Head) and Dr Amy Burns, Dr Jean-Philippe Semblat (from French Government agency Inserm, Paris) and Prof Oliver Billker (Umeå University, Sweden and Wellcome Sanger Institute, UK).

It is titled ‘Analysis of erythrocyte signalling pathways during Plasmodium falciparum infection identifies targets for host-directed antimalarial intervention’ and is published in Nature Communications this week (DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17829-7).

Potential for COVID-19 treatments

Using these findings, the RMIT team is now collaborating with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity to investigate potential COVID-19 treatments. This step has received funding from the Victorian Medical Research Acceleration Fund in partnership with the Bio Capital Impact Fund (BCIF).