An international consortium led by Brazilian researchers hopes to speed up the discovery of new drugs to be used in the treatment of malaria, visceral leishmaniasis, and Chagas disease.
Chagas and leishmaniasis are categorised as neglected tropical diseases because they affect mainly poor populations in low-income countries and attract less treatment and research funding than major diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
The consortium involves researchers at the universities of Campinas (Unicamp) and São Paulo (USP), both in São Paulo state, and the international organisations Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi).
Jadel Kratz, drug discovery manager at DNDi in Latin America, told SciDev.Net: “The partnership will also support the training of new specialists in the treatment of neglected diseases at Brazilian universities while bringing new job opportunities and infrastructure investments to these institutions.”
The task of analysing and preparing a new antimalarial drug will be divided between the synthetic organic chemistry laboratory of the University of Campinas and Switzerland-based MMV, which focuses on reducing the burden of malaria in endemic countries.
Carlos Dias, a chemist at Unicamp and consortium coordinator, told SciDev.Net: “By analysing the structure of molecules included in the MMV’s portfolio, we will try to identify those that may be used to treat malaria in a single dose, avoiding cases of drug resistance.”
MMV maintains a database of molecules ready to be studied, synthesised and used in the development of new medications.
“The idea is to develop a pill capable of maintaining a high enough concentration in blood plasma to eliminate the malaria parasite in up to seven days,” Dias added. Currently, people infected have to take drugs every day for many days. This is the case for artemisinin, a drug used to treat malaria, obtained from the herb Artemisia annua and used against the protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, the most lethal malaria-causing parasite.
However, since the 2000s, artemisinin started losing some of its potency against the disease in countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.
In 2018 there were an estimated 228 million cases of malaria worldwide, resulting in 405, 000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Ninety-three per cent of those cases were in the Africa region.
Unicamp’s chemistry laboratory will also work with the University of São Paulo’s centre for structural molecular biotechnology and the DNDi to develop new drugs against Chagas disease and visceral leishmaniasis, the most severe form of the potentially fatal skin disease spread by sandflies.