Health researchers have discovered that a drug which inhibits the growth of cancer cells can also kill the parasite that causes malaria.
The European Union (EU) this week said researchers had made a breakthrough in malaria treatment in the run-up to World Malaria Day to be commemorated on Monday.
“Ahead of World Malaria Day (April 25), EU-funded researchers have discovered that drugs originally designed to inhibit the growth of cancer cells can also kill the parasite that causes malaria,” the EU said in a statement.
“They believe this discovery could open up a new strategy for combating this deadly disease, which, according to World Health Organisation statistics, infected around 225 million and killed nearly 800 000 people worldwide in 2009.”
Efforts to find a treatment have so far been hampered by the parasite’s ability to quickly become drug-resistant.
The research involved four projects funded by the EU.
The EU’s research, innovation and science commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: “This discovery could lead to an effective anti-malaria treatment that could save millions of lives and transform countless others.
“This demonstrates yet again the added value both of EU-funded research and innovation in general and of collaboration with researchers in developing countries in particular.
“The ultimate goal is the complete eradication of the global scourge of malaria and collaborative work across many borders is the only way of confronting such global challenges effectively.”
Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium, which is transmitted via the bites of infected mosquitoes.
In the human body, the parasites reproduce in the liver, and then infect and multiply in red blood cells.
The research showed that in order to proliferate, the malaria parasite depends upon a signalling pathway present in the host’s liver cells and in red blood cells.
They demonstrated that the parasite hijacks the kinases (enzymes) that are active in human cells, to serve its own purposes.
When the research team used cancer chemotherapy drugs called kinase inhibitors to treat red blood cells infected with malaria, the parasite was stopped in its tracks.