Canberra scientists find way to fight drug-resistant malaria

CANBERRA scientists have made a key breakthrough in the fight against malaria, as traditional treatments become less effective.

Malaria kills one person every 90 seconds and the parasites that cause the infectious disease have become increasingly drug-resistant in recent years, particularly in south-east Asia, making researchers and healthcare workers desperate for new treatments.

The number of malaria cases worldwide jumped about 5 million to 216 million between 2015 and 2016, according to the World Health Organisation, which released a report last year saying that progress in eradicating the disease had stalled after ‘an unprecedented period of success’.

Australian National University associate professor Dr Brendan McMorran said a research team from the ANU and the University of Queensland may have found an answer to the parasites’ drug resistance.

Dr McMorran said the team had designed and created a small fragment of a human protein called platelet factor 4, which had been proven to kill Plasmodium, the parasites that caused malaria.

Because the protein was large and not suited to use as a treatment, Dr McMorran said the researchers copied parts of the protein that were critical to killing malarial parasites into a smaller molecule, known as a peptide.

“We have shown that this peptide kills the parasite in a way that is completely different to how current anti-malarial drugs work,” Dr McMorran said.

“This is important because finding new ways to kill the parasite will help us overcome the drug-resistance problems.”

The researchers have tested the peptide’s effectiveness under laboratory conditions, and now plan to develop more potent versions that can be used to treat malaria.

“We plan to modify the peptide to include new functions that target other vulnerable parts of the parasite, and make the peptide more suited to being administered to people,” Dr McMorran said.

Dr McMorran said it was likely to be at least 10 years before malaria treatments using the peptide would become available.

He said he hoped human testing could begin in about five to seven years.

“It’s difficult to give a specific timeframe because there are a lot of things we need to go through,” he said.

The research is published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology.