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17 Jun 2015

A team of scientists, led by the University of Dundee Drug Discovery Unit in partnership with Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and collaborating laboratories, has published in Nature the discovery of a novel compound that has the potential to cure malaria. The article describes the discovery and profiling of the compound that has been selected by MMV to enter preclinical development, following the recommendation of their Expert Scientific Advisory Committee, and subsequently partnered with Merck Serono.

Professor Ian Gilbert, who led the project said, “The properties of this compound, described in the Nature article, are particularly exciting. Not only does it have potential for treating malaria with a single dose, it may also prevent the spread of malaria from infected people and it has shown potential to prevent people developing malaria in the first place, which is an important goal for eliminating this terrible disease.”

Dr Kevin Read, co-leader of the project in Dundee said “The compound works in an entirely different way to other known antimalarial agents. Detailed investigation has revealed that it targets part of the machinery that makes proteins within the parasite that causes malaria.”

New anti-malaria drugs are urgently needed. The World Health Organisation estimates that there were about 200 million clinical cases of malaria in 2013, with 584,000 people dying from it. Most of these deaths are in children under the age of 5 and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable. Resistance to current drugs is a real problem. There is also a need for medicines to prevent the spread of malaria from infected people, known as transmission blocking, and prevent malaria infection developing in vulnerable people, known as prophylaxis.

The project was initiated by testing a collection of about 4700 compounds at the University of Dundee Drug Discovery Unit, to see if any would kill the parasite that causes malaria. From this, a chemical start point was identified. This was then optimised through cycles of design, preparation and testing, by a team of chemists and biologists. The preclinical candidate was extensively profiled to investigate the properties of the compound and understand how it works. These experiments were undertaken in Dundee and through MMV’s network of collaborators around the world, from Melbourne to San Diego.

The potential for this treatment is immense. A drug that could cure malaria and stop the spread of the disease would transform the lives of millions of people around the world.