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Malaria breakthrough as scientists find ‘highly effective’ way to kill parasite

3 min read

Human trials of new antimalarial drugs are in the pipeline after Kenyan scientists successfully used bacteria to kill the parasite that causes the disease.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and global health partners say the breakthrough could potentially lead to the development of a new class of drugs in less than two years.

The promise of a new treatment comes after trials in Burkina Faso proved that Ivermectin, a conventional drug used for parasitic diseases including river blindness and elephantiasis, reduced transmission rates. The medication worked by making the blood of people who were repeatedly vaccinated lethal to mosquitoes.

The study also found that Ivermectin can kill plasmodium falciparum, the malaria parasite carried by female mosquitoes, when administered to humans.

A mosquito

Malaria affects more than 200 million people globally and claims nearly 500,000 lives a year, with children especially vulnerable. Photograph: University of Glasgow/PA

The US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will now perform human trials using new drugs derived from the bacteria after extensive lab research.

The initiative was prompted by studies conducted by the World Health Organization and several international health agencies warning of resistance to existing antimalarial drugs.

“Resistance is always a problem and the parasite always finds a way to get away with it. That is why a new line of treatment is a must. It has to be made available soon,” said Dr Simon Kariuki, head of Kenya’s malaria research programmes at Kemri.

The research is being conducted in Kenya by local scientists in collaboration with international health experts.

“We have discovered [that the] bacterium is highly effective in killing plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria, but our research is more focused on pregnant women and children as they are more vulnerable. We are getting very motivating leads,” Kariuki said.

“In a few years, new malaria drugs could be in the market if the current research findings are to go by. The same bacteria known to kill dangerous pathogens in scabies, river blindness, can also be applied in malaria.

“The motivating success of Ivermectin is leading us to venture into producing other drugs. That is very encouraging and it means more research, and that is what we are doing.”

Mosquitoes are seen on a net at a research facility in Nairobi, Kenya

Mosquitoes are seen on a net at a research facility in Nairobi, Kenya. Photograph: Stephen Morrison/EPA

Child malaria episodes could be reduced by up to 20% if populations living in high-risk areas are given Ivermectin, according to a study published by the Yale School of Public Health.

Kenya’s health ministry says malaria cases have gone up from 16,000 in 2016 to about 18,757 last year, and experts warn that the climate crisis could make matters worse.

“Future drug trials of women and children are planned … and obviously with the highest safety standards. We need more answers on Ivermectin. We need new malaria drugs as soon as possible as drug resistance is not something to ignore and we have to treat the situation as urgent,” said Kariuki.

An expert, independent from the study, said reports of resistance to the current class of malaria drugs are on the rise.

“There have been confirmed reports by the World Health Organization that there have been cases of resistance in Thailand and Cambodia, and closer to home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” said Dr Evans Murage, a pharmacist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“There are cases of the drugs being sold over the counter, leading to their resistance and overuse. Many people who buy drugs from pharmacies suspect they have malaria even without getting tested. This should be a worry for the government.”

Currently, the most effective vaccine to have a protective effect against malaria is RTS,S, introduced in a WHO-recommended pilot scheme in 2019. In trials it was found to prevent approximately 39% of cases of malaria in children aged from five to 17 months.

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