Man-Made Drug Raises Hopes for Malaria, Cancer Treatment

September 2 2004
By Corinne Purtill

A man-made version of a Chinese herbal drug has proved in some tests to be more effective than the standard treatments for both malaria and cancer, researchers at a US university announced last week, in a breakthrough that could have a significant impact in the fight against both diseases. 

The synthetic chemicals mimic the malaria-fighting action of artemisinin, a natural and highly effective anti-malaria drug derived from a Chinese plant. 

"Preliminary data show that our laboratory-synthesized compounds have a therapeutic index the measure of a drug's safety and efficacy that is better, in some cases, many times better, in rodents than the drugs currently considered the gold standard for chemotherapy of both malaria and prostate cancer," said research team leader Dr Gary Posner in a release from Johns Hopkins University in the state of Maryland. 

Artemisinin and its derivatives interact with byproducts released by the malaria parasite as it feeds on red blood cells for nourishment, the John Hopkins statement said. When the byproducts interact with the chemical bonds in artemisinin and its derivatives, the ensuing chemical reaction destroys the parasite. 

When tested on rats, two different types of the man-made artemisinin were significantly more effective in treating malaria than artesunate, the drug most commonly used in Cambodia and other parts of the world. 

In addition, the man-made versions were equally, and in one case more effective, against prostate cancer than the two leading drugs for that disease, the statement said. 

While malaria experts here applauded the findings, some cautioned against placing too much faith in any single breakthrough.

"The news is indeed good news," said Dr Seshu Babu, an adviser to the National Malaria Center, in an email Tuesday. "But the history of malaria control is replete with episodal reports of such good news soon overtaken by stark ground realities whereby the malaria parasite seems to grow from strength to strength."
Though the National Malaria Center has approved artemisinin as a malaria treatment, "the high cost of the current 'gold standard' artemisinin-based drugs puts them out of the reach of millions of people who are at risk and need them most," Babu wrote. 

The lab-made artemisinin could prove to be safer and more effective than the drug's natural version, though not necessarily any cheaper, Posner wrote in 
an email from the US on Friday. 

Officials at the National Center of Traditional Medicine welcomed the Hopkins team's research, but said the findings have little immediate relevance for an institution that lacks even the funds to publish its extensive records of Cambodian herbal medicines or conduct experiments of its own.

The study is "very interesting," director Hieng Punley said Wednesday. But "we have no laboratory to perform, to research about malaria."