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An Ingredient in Your Toothpaste Could Help Fight Malaria

There is an urgent need to develop new treatments for malaria, as the disease kills approximately 500,000 people every year. And an artificial intelligence robot may have just discovered one.

A study led by University of Cambridge researchers revealed this week that triclosan, an ingredient commonly found in toothpaste, could help disrupt malaria infections in the liver and the blood.

The researchers were helped by robot scientist Eve to conduct high-throughput screening, according to the study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Take Action: Call on Canadian Ministers to Commit to Global Health Security

In 2016, there were 216 million malaria cases, with 445,000 deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Drug-resistant malaria is becoming an increasingly significant threat in Africa and southeast Asia, and our medicine chest of effective treatments is slowly depleting,” Professor Steve Oliver from the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre and the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge said in a Univeristy of Cambridge report. “The search for new medicines is becoming increasingly urgent.”

Additionally, as funds for malaria efforts have slowed down, insecticide-treated nets, medicines, and other life-saving tools, have become scarce, according to a WHO report from November.

Read More: Malaria Is on the Rise Due to Lack of Funding, WHO Report Says

“In recent years, we have made major gains in the fight against malaria,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, said in the report. “We are now at a turning point. Without urgent action, we risk going backwards, and missing the global malaria targets for 2020 and beyond.”

Malaria is often transferred by mosquitoes. Through a bite, the parasites find their way into the liver and then work their way into red blood cells, where they multiply and spread. Malaria can cause a fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, among other symptoms, and can develop into a life-threatening sickness.

Scientists already knew that triclosan was able to stop the growth of malaria parasites at the blood level by targeting an enzyme called enoyl reductase (ENR), but this study revealed that triclosan also attacks a different malaria parasite enzyme called DHFR.

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Triclosan is used in toothpaste to help prevent plaque buildup.

Triclosan’s ability to target the same enzyme could be a huge health win as malaria is quickly developing resistance to the the commonly used malaria drug, antimalarial pyrimethamine, that currently targets DHFR.

The research indicated that triclosan could target and act on this enzyme even in pyrimethamine-resistant parasites.

“The discovery by our robot colleague that triclosan is effective against malaria targets offers hope that we may be able to use it to develop a new drug,” Elizabeth Bilsland, who co-led the study, told Reuters. “We know it is a safe compound, and its ability to target two points in the malaria parasite’s lifecycle means the parasite will find it difficult to evolve resistance.”

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