| Greek scientist Fotis C. Kafatos (left) and British Prof. Brian Greenwood in London on Wednesday. (AFP)
London, Oct. 2 (Reuters): Cracking the genetic code of the malaria parasite will speed the hunt for new drugs to tackle the killer disease, which is growing resistant to conventional medicines.
Prof. Brian Greenwood, head of the 80-strong malaria centre at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, sees the breakthrough announced today as a major advance.
“It will accelerate the rate at which we get new tools for malaria control,” he said.
In addition to new drugs, understanding the genetic make-up of both the mosquito and its Plasmodium falciparum parasite could help in the development of new insect repellents and traps to prevent mosquito bites.
The need for new medicines has never been more urgent. Malaria kills more than one million people each year — 90 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where infections are running at record levels. And traditional tablets are losing their potency. “It’s very important to find new drug targets. The present cheap drugs that we’ve got are useless in southeast Asia and the parasite is becoming increasingly resistant in Africa,” Greenwood said.
For decades, the mainstay treatment for malaria has been chloroquine, a medicine costing about six US cents for a course, which has saved millions of lives.
But now parasites are becoming resistant to chloroquine and, more recently, to sulphadoxine-pyrimethamine, or Fansidar, another cheap drug chosen when chloroquine doesn’t work.
Other, newer drugs have been developed, including artemisinin-based combination therapies, derived partly from a Chinese herb — but the number of options in the medicine cabinet is running low.
With the entire inventory of genes in P.falciparum at their fingertips, scientists are seeking new ways to hit the parasite.
The team of 150 researchers in the United States and Britain that sequenced all the genes in the threadlike organism have, in fact, already pinpointed six potential new drug targets.