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New weapon in fight against malaria

QIMR researchers have found an enzyme that may prove an effective target for future anti-malarial drugs.

In collaboration with a multinational team, Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) scientists, Associate Professor Don Gardiner, Dr Katharine Trenholme, and team, have identified a new way to kill the parasites that cause malaria – a disease that kills over 1 million people every year.

“We have examined the structure of an enzyme that allows the parasite to obtain nutrients from the blood,” said Associate Professor Gardiner. “If we can make a drug that will stop this enzyme from working properly, we can essentially starve the parasites to death.”

Associate Professor Gardiner and his team have been studying the structure of this enzyme, and this latest research helps us to understand how it functions, and which drugs would be likely to work on this enzyme, killing the parasite.

“Using X-rays we could see the way the enzyme worked. We also added compounds to block the action of the enzyme, and showed without the enzyme, the parasites can no longer survive.”

Associate Professor Gardiner hopes this will lead to alternative therapies for malaria. “The problem with current anti-malarial drugs is that they can react against the person taking them, often causing serious side effects. Knowing more about the parasite means that we can develop drugs that are more specific, and therefore less likely to act against people,” said Associate Professor Gardiner.

“The prevention and treatment of malaria is also becoming difficult due to the global spread of drug resistant parasites. Resistance has appeared to all the currently available antimalarial drugs and an effective vaccine is still many years away. If we do not maintain the edge against this parasite, with the introduction of new and effective drugs, the global death toll from this, man’s most lethal parasitic infection, will only continue to rise.”

This study was done in collaboration with McGill University, Monash University, University of Western Sydney, University of Edinburgh, Wroclaw University of Technology, University of Virginia, and University of Technology Sydney. The paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 29 January 2010.