An anti-malaria drug developed in New Zealand has passed its first pre-clinical test, raising hopes for the more than one million people killed by the disease each year.
The experimental drug, first synthesised by Industrial Research Limited, a Crown research institute, targets the parasite responsible for malaria, a mosquito-borne, infectious disease that manifests in severe shivering and can result in coma and death. Pregnant women are among the most vulnerable, and children can suffer brain damage from anaemia as parasites overwhelm their red blood cells.
There is no long-term vaccine for the disease, and parasites – which harvest the host's DNA because they don't have their own – can become resistant to treatments, says Dr Gary Evans, the principal scientist of IRL's Carbohydrate Chemistry Group. But early efficacy trials have shown that the new compound blocks the enzyme used to harvest DNA, clearing the parasite within seven days.
"The best drug currently available takes three days to work, which is too long to monitor the effects on patients who often move around," Evans said. "We want a drug where we can watch them being treated and know they're cured."
The new drug, which appears to have no side effects, has been five years in the making, with Evans involved from day one.
The first trial was carried out in Panama on owl monkeys, a nocturnal species that can be infected by the same parasites as humans.
The monkeys were monitored during the trial, and no deaths resulted.
"There's a lot more concern on the side effects of drugs and in people suing," Evans says.
"Everyone's so ultra-cautious about making these drugs safe. But we keep doing research in New Zealand because we can't rely on the rest of the world.
"We haven't cured cancer, we haven't cured malaria. It's not appropriate to wait," he said.
New Zealand Pharmaceuticals, which is capable of manufacturing the drug's active ingredient, is following developments closely.
"We hope to manufacture it as our contribution to the future of this malaria drug," NZ Pharmaceuticals business development manager Selwyn Yorke said.
- © Fairfax NZ News