Clinical trials for SA anti-malaria drug

29 August 2012

The development of a single-dose anti-malarial drug by the University of Cape Town (UCT) could help Africa and the rest of the world tackle a disease which claims almost a million lives a year, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said on Tuesday.

The new molecule, developed by UCT’s Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3-D), was selected last month by Switzerland’s Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) for further development.

It will now undergo a lengthy period of clinical trials and has the potential to become a single-dose cure for all strains of malaria and might also be able to block person-to-person transmission of the parasite.

Pandor said the compound has already been found to be a complete cure for animals infected by malaria. The department had provided R25-million in funding for the development of the drug.

African researchers finding solutions

The development of the drug has also helped train 10 local scientists and helped cement relations with international partner the MMV, which is based in Switzerland.

Pandor lauded the research partnership between the MMV and the H3-D centre and said it was essential to see African researchers involved in finding solutions to African problems.

She said South Africa had recently made significant progress in developing the basic sciences that underpin infectious disease research in the fields of immunology, virology, bio-chemistry, microbiology and genetics.

With the majority of the more than a billion people infected by communicable diseases located in developing countries, new research into neglected diseases was crucial, Pandor said.

The director of H3-D, Kelly Chibale, said the new drug was important, especially as others had proved ineffective in tackling parasites that had become drug-resistant.

“When we tested this molecule in animals that are infected with parasites, with a single low dose of this molecule, we could cure the infection completely,” Chibale said.

‘A unique research initiative’

The H3-D team – with help from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Australia’s Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation and India’s Syngene – spent 18 months developing a candidate molecule suitable for pre-clinical development.

Chibale commended the Science and Technology Department for its research chairs initiative, saying his research chair had afforded him the time to put together a team to carry out the research into an anti-malaria drug and was geared to training the next generation of researchers.

“This is not something that would have happened if I had been carrying a heavy load of teaching commitments and I think this is something unique and special about this country [the research chairs initiative],” he said.

The MMV’s chief scientific officer, Tim Wells, said that if all went well, the drug could expect to hit the market by 2020. He added that the clinical development phase would take around seven years – costing about R20-million a year.

He said the aim was to make it available to ordinary Africans, at affordable rates of less than a dollar a dose.

Wells added that although a vaccine for African malaria was being developed for 2015, there would still be a need for medication in a drug form.