By Zachary Gotthardt
SC Staff Writer
On Friday, October 31, Dr. Lawrence W. Bergman of Drexel University presented his research on creating a new drug to combat the worldwide malaria epidemic.
As the parasite shows resistance to older drugs, there is an increasing need for new treatment methods.
Malaria is among the top 3 most deadly diseases in Africa, along with AIDS and tuberculosis. There is an estimated 700,000 to 2.7 million deaths annually, with about 75 percent of these being African children.
According to Bergman, “malaria is primarily a disease of poverty” due to the conditions of malaria-effected communities.
Many do not have appropriate access to either the prevention or treatment for malaria. Insect nets may not be well-used or available, and medical treatment in poor communities is scarce.
Plasmodium falciparum, the most common parasite that causes malaria, has evolved a complicated lifecycle within humans and mosquitoes. They are introduced to humans via mosquitoes and reproduce within human red blood cells.
Once either 32 or 64 new individuals have been created, the cell bursts, releasing the pathogen. These protozoans are then able to infect new cells within the host.
They have evolved the unique adaptation to release themselves at night, when mosquitoes are most active, so that it can be taken in by a mosquito host. It is then able to reproduce within the insect and spread to new human hosts.
On a molecular level, Plasmodium enters the cells by using an actin-myosin motor. Myosin within the membrane of the protozoan interacts with the membrane of the blood cell and, essentially, tricks the cell into letting it in. Bergman and his team are attempting to develop drugs that inhibit this mechanism.
Conveniently, the mechanism and proteins involved are consistent through all the species of Plasmodium that cause malaria.
They have managed to discover an appropriate structure that can alter the movement of the protozoan. Presumably, the movement of these parasites is controlled by the actin-myosin motor, the same motor that is used to invade blood cells.
Theoretically, if this structure, which has since been patented by Bergman and his associates, can inhibit the motor, the parasite cannot enter the cell. These organisms cannot survive longer than 15 minutes outside of blood cells.
Dr. Bergman is facing a daunting task. In order to be approved for global use, the treatment must be effective with only one pill per day. That pill must also cost less than 10 cents.
Bergman and his team are still working on perfecting the molecule. While it can inhibit the actin-myosin motor, it is unknown if it prevents infection within an organism. Further tests must be done with living cells.
Furthermore, the compound must be easily synthesized or available to keep costs cheap, and a way to do so has yet to be discovered.
As with any drug, there must be minimal adverse effects before it can be made commercially available. With all of the obstacles in the way, at this point clinical trials are years away.
To synthesize the ideal compound, the team at Drexel has collaborated with groups from New York, California, and Geneva, Switzerland.
While the task seems difficult, Dr. Bergman is confident that a permanent cure for malaria can become a reality.
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