SA scientists identify new antimalarial compound

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South African scientists have discovered a new and more potent antimalarial compound that appears easier to formulate, reports Business Day.

A more powerful drug that is easier to produce could offer a more affordable option, should it reach the market.

The report says new malaria drugs are needed desperately as there is growing resistance to existing treatments, and an effective vaccine remains elusive. While there are relatively few cases of malaria in South Africa, it is a huge killer in sub-Saharan Africa, and takes the life of a child every two minutes, according to the World Health Organisation. About 2m people in South Africa live in high-transmission areas, and there were 11,238 reported cases last year.

In 2012 the University of Cape Town’s drug development and discovery centre announced it had identified a compound, MMV390048, that cured animals of a variety of malaria strains with one dose. Unlike current malaria drugs, which tackle the disease-causing parasite in the blood, animal studies showed MMV390048 blocked transmission throughout the parasite’s life cycle. A phase1 human clinical trial to test its safety was completed in 2015, but the results have yet to be published.

Now, the report says, the centre’s team has identified a second candidate malaria drug, UCT 943. The centre’s director, Kelly Chibale, said UCT943 had a similar mechanism to its predecessor, targeting a key parasite enzyme, phosphoinositide 4-kinase. Like its predecessor, it had potential for treating and preventing the spread of malaria, he said. “It is very important to build a pipeline of candidate drugs, as there are no guarantees. Even if MMV390048 makes it (onto the market), it is only a matter of time before resistance develops, and we will need backups.”

The report quotes Chibale as saying that the preclinical assessment of UCT 943 would take about 18 months. The next step would be a phase1 clinical trial. The centre developed its candidate antimalarial drugs in collaboration with the non-profit foundation Medicines for Malaria Venture.

University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price said in the report: “Delivering two preclinical candidates within five years is an outstanding record by international standards, especially for a drug discovery centre at an academic institution. The value of a second candidate signals that the first compound was not a one-off, but part of a sustained and systematic programme.”

Business Day report

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