Researchers at the University of Texas say they have found a chemical compound that may lead to a new treatment for various kinds of diarrheal illness. As we hear from VOA's Art Chimes, the discovery comes from the laboratory of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
Diarrhea is a major health issue in developing countries. The World Health Organization says it kills as many as two and a half million children a year.
The standard treatment for diarrheal diseases in much of the world has shortcomings, says Professor Ferid Murad.
"People in third world countries with infectious diarrheas are given a packet of sugars and amino acids and salts mixed in water to drink. And that's much more effective, but you're still having to deal with fresh, clean water, which can be a problem in some of those countries. So while it's helping, it's not optimal."
Murad was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998 for research on how nitric oxide transmits information from cell to cell in the body's cardiovascular system.
His interest in the body's so-called signaling mechanisms led him to search for a chemical that could stop diarrhea by slowing down the transmission of information from cell to cell within the intestine.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Murad says he has found just such a chemical.
It is a previously-discovered but unused compound known as BPIPP, which he found in the inventory of one of the companies where he worked as a consultant. "And some of these companies had a huge inventory of chemicals," he recalled. "And I asked if I couldn't have them to test to see if we could find a molecule that might block this pathway. And that's how it got started about five years ago. And yes, indeed, we found a molecule that blocked that pathway."
Tests using laboratory animals indicate that BPIPP is effective in suppressing diarrhea itself. That's different from the way oral rehydration therapy works, which is by replacing the fluid loss.
BPIPP is still years away from human use. It will be at least a couple of years before it can be tested in people and approved. "But I think this compound, should it become a drug, will have a much greater contribution and perhaps can save millions and millions of lives."
Oral rehydration therapy remains the treatment of choice for diarrheal diseases in developing countries, in part because they can be used regardless of the cause, and they are cheap.
Other diarrhea treatments are being developed, but Murad says they are specific to one bacterium and not the general-purpose anti-diarrhea medicine that BPIPP should be.
"They may work," said Murad, "but they're not going to be foolproof and shotgun [approach] for a variety of causes of the diarrhea, while this compound, I think, could really be the broad spectrum for bacterial diarrhea."
In addition to use in developing countries, BPIPP may be useful in treating travelers' diarrhea, which affects millions of people each year, though usually not fatally.