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New Compound Shows Promise in Fight Against Malaria

FILE - A child is vaccinated during a malaria vaccine trial in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, Aug. 2007.
FILE - A child is vaccinated during a malaria vaccine trial in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, Aug. 2007.

A novel compound has been developed to treat an old foe, malaria, a disease that infects more than 200 million people per year and kills 500,000 of them.

Researchers say the compound, DSM265, the first of a new class of anti-malarial drugs, could be one of the first single-dose cures against one of the deadliest diseases in the world.

By crippling a critical protein that is essential to the malaria parasite’s survival, DSM265 renders the malaria parasite unable to reproduce and infect hosts.

The compound destroys the parasite in all of its difficult-to-treat stages, from microscopic spores that enter the body through a mosquito bite, to the liver stage, where larvae are nurtured, and eventually infecting circulating red blood cells by the millions.

Dr. Pradip Rathod, a chemistry professor at the University of Washington, is part of a large international team involving researchers from 20 institutions that discovered DSM265.

He says studies initially showed the compound was very effective against parasites that had invaded red blood cells, and that other tests were equally promising.

“Those other studies showed that the compound is really very good against those other stages too," he said. "And so it can be used as a prophylactic; it can be used in areas where people are anticipating getting bitten by mosquitoes and getting infected, so that we take out the parasite in its very early stages before it shows up in the blood.”

It has been years since a new class of anti-malarial drugs has come along. Until now, the latest drugs were variations of old compounds discovered decades ago, and strains of malaria parasites resistant to them have been reported in southeast Asia.

DSM stands for “Dallas-Seattle-Melbourne,” the three cities that are home to the lead researchers, who tested hundreds of molecules before hitting on the version — the 265th — of the new drug that is most effective at inhibiting the parasite.

Rathod says the method used to discover DSM265 could someday lead to even more effective drugs against malaria.

“We’re getting good at this and we can make more molecules," he said. "And some people say if you make really good anti-malarials that are safe every five or ten years, and as countries are developing economically, all of this together will get us to a point where we have to stop worrying about this disease. That’s the big dream.”

DSM265 was described in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Early clinical trials are underway now and more are expected to begin soon.