New Long-Acting Malaria Drug Looks Promising

Researchers have developed a new, long-acting malaria drug that they believe may help fight one of the world’s biggest killers.

The drug, still known by its experimental name "DSM265," can stop the malaria parasite at several stages in its life cycle, the researchers report in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Tests in people have begun.

"DSM265 could be among the first single-dose cures for malaria, and would be used in partnership with another drug," said Dr. Margaret Phillips of the University of Texas Southwestern, a pharmacologist who worked on the drug’s development.

"The drug also could potentially be developed as a once-weekly preventive,” she said.

Malaria infected 198 million people in 2013, according to the World Health Organization. It killed more than 580,000 people, mostly children under the age of 5.

The malaria parasite is spread by mosquitoes and can live for years in the human body. Symptoms include fever, headache, back pain, chills, sweating, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cough.

It’s hard to fight with drugs because of the parasite’s complicated life cycle. Drugs that do treat malaria can cause serious side-effects. Mefloquine hydrochloride, sold under brand names including Lariam, Mephaquin or Mefliam, can cause serious symptoms that include hallucinations.

Other drugs approved to treat and prevent malaria include Malarone, chloroquine and the antibiotic doxycycline. There's no vaccine to prevent malaria, although scientists are working on several.

The parasite can develop resistance to the drugs, leaving doctors with few options to treat patients.

“The parasite is very good at adapting and becoming resistant to drugs - this is inevitable,” said Phillips. But by combining this new drug with old drugs, it might be possible to wipe out all the parasites in a patient's body, stopping the development of resistance, she said.

The new drug lasts 100 hours — four days — in the body, the researchers report in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

"This is the first of a new class of molecules that's going into humans," said Pradipsinh Rathod, a chemistry professor at the University of Washington who’s helping develop the drug.

“Until now, everything else in humans has been variations of drugs that have been developed in the distant past."

DSM265 targets a protein the parasite needs to reproduce.

The researchers have transferred their patent rights for DSM265 to the Medicines for Malaria Venture, which aims to develop the drug. It’s funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.