Scientists have potentially found a way to kill brain-eating amoebas that thrive in freshwater ponds in the US, according to research published in scientific journal Chemical Neuroscience.
The amoeba in question is called Naegleria fowleri, which infects humans by entering through their sinuses and then survives by eating brain tissue. It generally takes hold after someone has been in infected waters.
"The classic case is a 10-year-old boy who goes swimming in the South in the summer and starts to get a headache a few days later," Dr. Edward T. Ryan, director of the global infectious diseases division of Massachusetts General Hospital, told the New York Times.
Naegleria fowleri causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) — which causes swelling of the brain. Early symptoms include fever, headache, and nausea. Patients generally die from PAM within five days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC indicates that there were 143 reported cases of Naegleria fowleri between 1962 and 2017, with only four survivors.
Patients are usually prescribed high doses of antimicrobial drugs to treat the issue, which often have intense side effects attached to them.
"The biggest challenge is finding a drug that can actually reach the right region of the brain," Dr. Ayaz Anwar, a researcher at Sunway University in Malaysia who led the research, told the New York Times. "We need a drug that can trick the body into letting it through — and we know that anti-seizure drugs can overcome that barrier."
Anwar and his team tested this theory first with existing anti-seizure drugs (diazepam, phenobarbitone, and phenytoin). Because the brain-eating organism showed a sensitivity to these drugs, they then attached the drugs to tiny carriers made of silver, according to the New York Times.
This proved even more efficient, in tests with all three drugs — the amoeba cells were eventually reduced (and especially so in tests with diazepam).
These tests will next be administered to crickets, cockroaches, and mice, and while researchers note that this is just a starting point, it could lead to life-saving treatment for this rare and deadly infection.