A long road but potential malaria cure a boon for African science

Steve Kretzmann

CAPE TOWN (WCN) -- The road to creating a safe and effective medicinal drug is expensive, arduous, and littered with disappointing results.

Yet a team of post-doctoral scientists headed by Professor Kelly Chibane at the University of Cape Town may have found an effective cure for malaria, a disease that kills an estimated 665 000 people per year.

Malaria is also one of a host of tropical diseases historically neglected by the pharmaceutical companies that drive research, as there is little economic incentive to provide drugs to a population that would not be able to afford the prices necessary to recoup the huge research costs.

It is too early to cry ‘cure’, but Chibane and team have in their hands a compound that is ready to be clinically tested, a significant milestone in itself.

They have also developed the compound, named MMV390048, within two years – a staggeringly short time in the field of drug discovery.

“The standard period to get to where we are is six years but we were blessed to have done it in two,” said Chibane this week.

And should they have a cure, the involvement of the Swiss-based non-profit organisation Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) means it would be available at US$1 or less per treatment.

Zambian-born Chibane, who mentioned, as an aside during an offshoot discussion on capitalism, socialism and the pharmaceutical industry, that he grew up in a township “worse than Khayelitsha”, holds the Research Chair in Drug Discovery and is founding Director of the UCT Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3-D).

He is also an engaging defender of the pharmaceutical industry and believes it has unfairly been given a bad rap.

Not only are Chibane and his team of ten postdoctoral scientists in collaboration with MMV the first to develop a potential cure for malaria, they also have the first compound researched on African soil which has entered preclinical development.

They spent two years screening thousands of molecular compounds and subjecting promising results to extensive and exhaustive tests to reach this point.

Part of the process was sending MMV390048 to an independent company in China to undergo rigorous safety checks.

A negative result would have put paid to years of hard work and it took a nail-biting six months before Chibane and his team got the thumbs-up in June for the results.

What the team have now, thanks to an international collaborative research network and the Department of Science and Technology’s funding support and creation of the South African Research Chairs Initiative, is a compound that is ready to be tested on humans.

The clinical trials could take another six years or more, said Chibane, but if the compound is found to be safe and effective it will have a massive impact on disease control in Africa.

For while there are numerous anti-malarial drugs on the market, the drug regimens are often complicated, expensive, and increasingly ineffective due to increasingly resistant strains of malaria.  

MMV’s activities have been key to the development of the new compound.

IN 2008 MMV’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Tim Wells, launched an ambitious plan to test millions of chemical samples to identify new compounds active against the blood-stage form of human malaria.

In collaboration with Prof Vicky Avery at the Eskitis Institute at Griffiths University in Brisbane, Australia and the proprietary compounds made available by drug discovery company BioFocus, a library of potentially useful compounds was created.

This library of over 40 000 compounds was screened by Chibane and team at H3-D to develop, after going through exhaustive checks, the compound now making headlines.

The exciting thing about this compound, which is placed in the aminopyridine class, is that it shows potent activity against multiple points in the malaria parasite’s lifecycle. Thus not only does it have the potential to become part of a single-dose cure but it may also be able to block the transmission of the parasite from person to person.

It’s been an arduous process of disappointments and ‘Eureka’ moments but ups and downs of positive and negative results in the laboratory are the “beauty of science”, said Chibane.

And even if MMV390048 does not prove to be the safe and efficacious cure for malaria we hope it to be, the team have forged a new path for science on African soil.

There are also “back-up programmes”. Other discoveries along the way that are noted for further research at a later date, or should the main programme become a victim of any number of checks on the difficult road to reaching new medical frontiers. – West Cape News