Malaria: Five New Weapons

Health Memes / by Maywa Montenegro /

Profiles of the most promising and innovative approaches to fighting malaria, from a living drug pump to strategic computer models.

Build a Living Drug Pump
Artemisinin is easily the most powerful anti-malarial drug on the market, with a 90 percent cure rate, but extracting the clunky molecule from the sweet-wormwood plant that produces it is slow and expensive.  Jay Keasling, a chemical engineer at UC Berkeley, inserts wormwood genes into a simple yeast cell, and then reprograms some of that yeast’s own genes to create a microorganism that can transform sugar into artemisinin. Growing this microbe in a broth of glucose can produce volumes of the drug in just hours, reducing the manufacturing costs from dollars to pennies per dose. Keasling is working with university officials and pharmaceutical companies to ensure that no one, including him, can profit from his newly patented system. Pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis is now ramping up production of Keasling’s customized yeast cells and expects to start churning out artemisinin by late 2010 with the promise to sell the drug at cost.

Engineer a Vaccine
The Program for Appropriate Technology in Health’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative is partnering with GlaxoSmithKline and African researchers to develop the world’s most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate, called RTS,S. The Phase 3 trial of RTS,S was launched at the end of May in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, marking the start of the largest malaria trial in history and the first malaria vaccine to demonstrate efficacy significant enough to warrant Phase 3 testing. Phase 2 studies of RTS,S showed that the drug reduced the risk of malaria infection by 53 percent. The Phase 3 trial will test settings, ranging from areas where malaria occurs year round to areas where it is more of a seasonal threat. In the coming months, trials will begin in other countries across Sub-Saharan Africa with up to 16,000 children and infants enrolled. [Video of MVI scientists]

Alter the Environment
MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir and graduate students Rebecca Gianotti and Arne Bomblies have developed a new computer model that analyzes the effectiveness of environmental methods of malaria control. The MIT model shows how actions like eliminating low spots where pools of water collect during the rainy season, or applying plant-derived pesticides to limit the growth of mosquitoes can have a dramatic effect on controlling malaria’s spread. [Arne Bomblies’ photo gallery]

Grid Computing Guiding Drug Discovery
A team of scientists from South Africa, Italy, and France are using a grid, a high-speed computing network, as a large-scale and cheap way to kick start new drug developments against malaria parasites. The Wide In Silico Docking On Malaria (WISDOM), links a network of high-powered computers that match the structures of known chemical compounds—potential drug ingredients—with the three-dimensional structural data of proteins that are critical to the parasite’s metabolism. Virtual screening allows the researchers to find promising new weak points within the protein for drug designers to target. As the team reported in the May 1 issue of Malaria Journal, they have already screened one well-known target enzyme and another promising one against 4.3 million drug compounds. Similar projects, which are currently screening for drugs against HIV/AIDS, flu, polio, and other diseases, could prove to be the cheapest and fastest way to find the right medicine.

Map the Parasite’s Progress
In an effort to help inform policy and monitor progress in fighting malaria, an international consortium of researchers has created the first global map of malaria infection rates in more than 40 years. The map, which was produced by the Malaria Atlas Project (MAP) and published on March 24 in PLoS Medicine, shows the extent of Plasmodium falciparum infection, the most deadly type of malaria parasite. To produce the map, the scientists culled data from nearly 8,000 surveys of infection rates in the world’s malaria-prone regions. Surprisingly, they found that roughly 70 percent of the 2.4 billion people in these regions occupy areas where rates of transmission are less than 5 percent, indicating that across all of Latin America, and much of Central and Southeast Asia, simple interventions, such as bed nets, could potentially eradicate the disease. On the other hand, Central and West Africa continue to be hotspots of malaria transmission: Of the people estimated to live in high-risk areas worldwide, 98 percent lived in Africa. Here control, rather than eradication, of the disease is the more realistic goal. Led by Simon Hay of Oxford University, the researchers hope that this type of risk profiling could tell decision-makers where and how to maximize their efforts. [Video of Malaria Project Atlas]

Originally published June 11, 2009

Tags disease innovation pandemics technology

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