Breakthrough possible in fight against malaria - The Borneo Post - Monday, 18 February, 2002

PARIS: An experimental treatment against the parasite that causes malaria has proven astonishingly effective in monkeys, according to the American journal Science.

As a result, a drug for humans could be available for testing in less than two years.  The research team of French, Dutch and Columbian researchers were led by Henri Vial of France's National Centre of Scientific Research.

Vial is a biochemist who has spent 20 years studying the parasite's metabolic activities in blood cells.  "We have a route map. Now we have to follow it," Vial told AFP.

Extremely low doses of the substance, called G25, completely cured monkeys that had been heavily infected with Plasmodium falciparum, the commonest of the four malarial strains which are lethal to humans.

Between 300 and 500 million cases of malaria occur each year with the annual death toll estimated to range from at least one million to 2.7 million.  Most of the victims are children under the age of five.

The disease is caused by a microscopic parasite that enters the victim's blood stream through the saliva of a malaria-infected mosquito as it sucks blood from the skin.

The parasites then burrow into the victim's liver, where they hole up and multiply.  They then leave the liver and enter red blood cells.

Once inside, they multiply again.  This causes the blood cells to burst, releasing more of the parasites which go on to infect more blood cells, and so on.

Eventually, the parasites can destroy up to 70 per cent of all red blood cells, causing severe anemia, fever, coma and death.

The research focused on the third stage of the process - when the parasite has entered the red blood cell, and starts feasting on fatty compounds in the cell called phospholipids.

The G25 experiments met many of the standards of clinical tests on humans.  This suggests there could be a fast track to making the drug publicly available provided it passes all the safety tests, researchers said.

A bonus is that G25 should be easy and cheap to make, which is essential for distributing a drug in sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 per cent of all malarial cases occur.

The only drawback to the current form of G25 is that it has to be injected into muscle but Vial's research team is confident that a more convenient, oral form of the drug could be put to small, pre-clinical trials within two years.-AFP