ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar: Scientists have isolated a malaria-killing molecule in a plant that generations on this Indian Ocean island have used to treat the mosquito-borne disease.
The plant, strychnopsis thouarsii, is found only in Madagascar, growing in the country's eastern rain forests. Dr. Philippe Rasaonaivo, from Madagascar's Institute for Applied Research, said his research team had identified in it the first naturally occurring molecule that kills the malarial parasite as it passes through the liver in the first stage of the disease.
Most drugs target the parasite when it has already passed through the liver and entered the bloodstream.
"At this stage I cannot say more, but perhaps in one or two years we will be able to say that this could be an important discovery for Africa in the fight against malaria," he said.
The news was met with interest by international malaria experts but they caution that the development of effective new drugs from plant remedies is a long and complicated process.
"Though on the face of it, it sounds exciting, I would say it is too early to tell if the molecule will finally make it through the development process to the drug stage," said Jaya Banerji, spokesman at the Medicines for Malaria Venture, a Switzerland-based nonprofit organization whose mandate is to find new drugs for malaria.
Malaria is among the world's top killers. The disease kills 2,000 African children every day, and resistance to anti-malarial drugs is becoming an increasing problem.
Strychnopsis thouarsii, with its distinctive three leaves, only grows at low altitude and near water on the island, which is famous for its biodiversity.