Study works toward new malaria drug

Jasten McGowan | 31 Jan 2007
Chronicle Online
More than a million people die each year from malaria due to an outdated drug that no longer serves its purpose, but lately, Duke researches have been hard at work to reverse that trend.

After World War II, the anti-malarial drug chloroquine became the top drug for the prevention and treatment of malaria. The parasite responsible for the disease, however, has become increasingly resistant to chloroquine and other treatments, leading to a surge in deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Treatments for malaria have been less studied than those for HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, which affect more nations across the globe, said Dr. Barton Haynes, associate professor in the Department of Medicine and director of Duke's Human Vaccine Institute.

"Since institutions like the Gates Foundation began to champion global health causes, the momentum has certainly picked up," said Timothy Haystead, associate professor of pathology, pharmacology and cancer biology.

Even President George W. Bush found time to mention the struggle against malaria in his 2007 State of the Union Address-noting the $1.2 billion he earmarked in 2005 to fight malaria in 15 Sub-Saharan African countries over five years, Haystead added.

Dr. Ashley Chi, assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, said he studies the interaction between parasites and the blood cells they invade in hopes to some day counter infection.

"We know nothing yet about whether this is a long-term solution, but there's much to learn about the ways the parasite detects cells and survives," Chi said.

At the same time, efforts to develop a vaccine continue.

"Work to treat HIV and tuberculosis moved far ahead in recent decades," said Haynes, who added that he hopes to develop a combined malaria/tuberculosis/HIV vaccine. "Major advances in human genomics in recent years make a vaccine very possible."

But Haystead, who developed the process of "proteome mining"-binding drugs to specific proteins typically found in humans-said short-term drug therapies like the ones he researches are a better alternative.

Various short-term drug therapies attack more than one gene-creating "a virtual lockdown" on the mechanism responsible for malaria-as opposed to vaccines that target just one gene, he said.

"[Seeking new vaccines] isn't the way to quickly maximize genetic advances," Haystead said. "The parasite is exceedingly smart in avoiding immune detection. It's simply not as easy as making a vaccine for polio or smallpox-and perhaps impossible to create a vaccine that's worth the wait."

Haystead said, however, that the recent increase in awareness and support for global health issues on a national and local level could some day lead to the quick development of effective vaccines and other treatments.

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