South African scientists have identified a new chemical compound that has the ability to treat malaria and even kill the malaria parasite before it becomes infectious.
The discovery was made by scientists at Johannesburg’s Wits Research Institute for Malaria, in partnership with the University of Pretoria and scientists from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and other partners from the US and Spain.
Prof. Lynn-Marie Birkholtz, research chair in sustainable malaria control and biochemistry professor at the University of Pretoria, explained that their research involved finding compounds that are able to interrupt malaria in it’s transitional phases.
“The breakthrough involves the identification of unique compounds that are able to kill several stages of the malaria-causing parasite and can block the transmission of the parasite between humans and mosquitoes,” she said in an announcement released by the University of Pretoria.
Birkholtz also explained that in order to eliminate malaria, it’s important to know how to kill the parasite in its many forms. She referred to the parasite as a “shapeshifter”, as it has the ability to transition into multiple forms while inside humans.
“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,” she said.
Speaking to Reuters, Birkholtz pointed out that most existing drugs only kill malaria as it becomes established in the liver or after it has infected red blood cells — they do not have the ability to tackle it at the stage where it is transmissible to other people through mosquito bites.
There currently exists only one drug that can interrupt malaria in the phase where it is most transmissible, however the side effects of this drug mean that it is not commonly used.
Referring to the new chemical discovery, Birkholts told Reuters: “If we can develop these compounds ... then we have an additional new tool that we can use to eliminate malaria.”
The World Health Organisation raised concerns about the lack of progress made in 2020 to eliminate malaria due to COVID-19, and said that the deaths caused by the pandemic’s disruption to services designed to tackle malaria will far exceed those directly caused by COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the latest World Health Organisation Malaria report, the disease caused more than 400,000 deaths around the world in 2019, and the large majority of these were based in Africa.
The new chemical compound is a promising development, however more tests still need to be done in order for the compound to be used in treatments.