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Mice Study Indicates Cholesterol Drug Might Help Treat Serious Malaria Cases

  • Jessica Berman

Each year, an estimated 500,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa develop the most serious form of malaria, so-called cerebral malaria. Experts say many of those who do not die from this parasitic infection go on, years later, to develop memory problems and learning difficulties. Now, researchers say these malaria-induced cognitive impairments may be averted with a commonly used cholesterol-lowering drug.

In a mouse model, an international research team has discovered that a cholesterol-lowering drug, called lovastatin, prevents the late cognitive problems seen in approximately 120,000 children throughout sub-Saharan Africa who survive cerebral malaria, which causes inflammation of brain and spinal tissue.

In the study, researchers from the U.S. and Brazil treated a group of mice infected with the disease, using the standard anti-malarial drug, chloroquine. Half of the animals also received lovastatin, according to study leader Guy Zimmerman, a researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City.

“The mice that got the anti-malarial drug and the lovastatin had a dramatically, significantly reduced incidence of the late brain dysfunction,” Zimmerman said.

Lovastatin is part of a family of drugs that reduces the body’s inflammatory response to infection. Generated by the immune system, inflammation is a normal response to disease. But occasionally, the body mounts an aggressive inflammatory response that attacks the body's own tissue.

Zimmerman says cognitive problems can mean a lifetime of challenges for children who've survived cerebral malaria.

“Trying to learn, if indeed they do have access to schools. Trying to do that while they are still mired in poverty while they are still at risk for AIDS. And if you begin to think about what that could do to their long-term intellectual capacity and their ability to function in their local societies, it’s staggering,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman recommends lovastatin be added to treatments for malaria as well as for sepsis, a systemic blood infection commonly known as blood poisoning that sickens and threatens the lives of more people worldwide than cerebral malaria.

Zimmerman has asked government drug regulators to speed their review process, but says he’s not optimistic that the prerequisite human trials will be easy to conduct in far-flung regions of Africa, where malaria is prevalent.

An article on the use of anti-cholesterol medicine in the treatment of malaria is published in the journal PLoS Pathogens.