Cal Poly Researchers Working to Supplement Nobel-Winning Anti-Malaria Drug
SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly chemistry Professor Scott Eagon is working on a drug to supplement the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, developed by one of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in medicine, Tu Youyou.
Malaria is caused by a blood-borne parasite carried by infected mosquitoes. In the 15 years since artemisinin was introduced, some strains of the parasite have become resistant to the drug. Eagon and his students are working to develop an entirely new compound to combat the disease.
Malaria kills a child every minute in Africa, according to the World Health Organization, with fatalities estimated at more than 584,000 annually. Considered another way, malaria kills as many people in a month as Ebola killed in a year.
The malaria parasite attacks the blood cells and deprives the body of oxygen. Though artemisinin has helped cut malaria-related deaths by 60 percent since 2000, strains of drug-resistant parasites have now been confirmed in five countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
Eagon’s group is developing a series of new molecules that work differently from current treatments in hopes that the parasite will have no natural resistance to drugs that contain these molecules. Specifically, they are building molecules that disrupt a type of protein in the parasite’s cells. If these proteins stop working, the parasite can no longer protect itself from the human body’s natural defense mechanisms, such as fever.
“Proteins do all the work in the cells. If the proteins don’t work, the organism dies,” Eagon said.
The students in Eagon’s lab have already created a dozen new compounds. “The students are tackling a real-world problem with unknown results,” Eagon said. “They’re synthesizing molecules that have never been made before.”
Through a partnership with the University of Calgary, one of their drug candidates was tested on mice in combination with artemisinin. Though the drug is a long way from production, the initial results were promising — five mice that had been infected with malaria survived and recovered faster than those given artemisinin alone.
Eagon and his team of undergraduate researchers are concentrating on small molecules that are inexpensive to make and can be distributed in pill form. They want the medicine to be easily available in developing countries with little health infrastructure.
“What we’re doing is almost exactly what you would do at a pharmaceutical company,” Eagon said. “The students learn pharmaceutical skills and get to work toward something that can have worldwide impact.”