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Tracking down new malaria drugs

(Vienna, 23rd April 2014) The majority of modern malaria treatments are based on the active ingredient artemisinin, a plant-based substance that occurs in the flowers and leaves of the mugwort plant. More and more malaria parasites, however, are resistant to artemisinin. As part of a cooperation project between the Veterinary Medicine University of Vienna, the Medical University of Vienna and the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, research is going on in the laboratories of the Institute of Specific Prophylaxis and Tropical Medicine at the MedUni Vienna to track down new malaria medications.



Aline Lamien Meda from Burkina Faso, who works at the Vetmeduni Vienna as part of an APPEAR project (Austrian Partnership Programme in Higher Education and Research for Development) on the development of a pharmacopoeia of traditional malaria medicines, is collaborating with Harald Nödl, malaria expert at the MedUni Vienna, to investigate the effectiveness and possible potential use as malaria medicines of around 50 plants and herbs that are used in traditional African medicine in the context of malaria. Says Nödl: “Some of these herbs are known to alleviate the symptoms of malaria, however it is not known whether they are able to effectively fight the malaria parasites."



This is being investigated in the laboratory using specially-bred malaria parasites and “dilution series” – and with ELISA technology that was developed over ten years ago at the MedUni Vienna and is now used worldwide. It is expected, says Nödl, that only a handful of the investigated plants will be suitable for practical commercial use in malaria therapy.
In the run-up to World Malaria Day next Friday, the scientists are warning that in no more than five years’ time, the world will need medications that are based on a different ingredient to artemisinin: “The parasites’ resistance to artemisinin is spreading considerably in South East Asia, there are some indications that resistance has already reached South America and this could also be the case in Africa within a few years.” By this point, the commonly used medicine will be powerless against the malaria parasites.



2,000 victims of malaria every day

Each day, around 2,000 people die from malaria (equating to around 655,000 per year), a disease that is primarily associated with poverty. The disease claims most of its victims in Africa, especially the weakest ones, children. In most cases, the disease progresses without complications if it can be diagnosed and treated early enough. In cases where complications arise, the mortality rate remains extremely high, however. Malaria is still, even today, one of the most common causes of death in children under the age of five, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America.