New Delhi: Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore have mapped and modelled an important protein in the parasite that is responsible for the most lethal and common form of malaria. This is the first time the protein has been modelled in the “falciparum malaria” parasite.
The protein map of the so-called “heat shock protein 90”, or Hsp90, is seen as a significant first step towards designing suitable drugs to counter the falciparum malaria parasite. It will help drug researchers make drugs that attack and weaken specific areas on the protein, thereby killing the parasite and its spread.
While Utpal Tatu, one of biochemistry scientists involved in the research, says the effort is a “minor” development, he does note that “researchers involved in drug development will take note of this”.
The current line of attack to counter falciparum malaria is to use mefloquine, artemisinin and chloroquine, each of which is administered depending on how much the falciparum parasite has spread in the patient.
Principally, all the current approaches in anti-malarial drugs involve weakening some enzyme or the other that is crucial to the development of the falciparum parasite. “But this protein approach is rather novel, and it seems like significant headway could be possible,” said a senior immunologist at the National Malaria Research Centre, who didn’t wish to be identified.
Hsp90, found in most higher forms of life, are medically identified as “chaperonins” because they are key to the formation of other proteins without which cells cannot form. In the falciparum malaria parasite, the Hsp90 protein, for instance, sets off a chain of processes that help the parasite proliferate upon entry into the human body. This “expression” of Hsp90 is caused by the temperature increase from surrounding blood cells leading to its name “heat shock protein”. “Targeting Hsp is an indirect way of killing the parasite,” said A.K. Sharma, a parasitologist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
Hsp90 has been the target of drug research for nearly two decades given its potential as a drug target for diseases ranging from cancer to tuberculosis. For instance, last December Tatu’s team at the institute showed that derivatives of geldanamycin, an anti-cancer drug that is in an advanced level of trials, could also be used to counter malaria with a high efficacy potential.
Tatu is confident that if drug trials proceed smoothly and clear regulatory obligations, India could have the geldanamycin-based anti-malarial drug within three years.
The Indian Journal of Medical Research says falciparum malaria accounted for nearly 45% of the 1.04 million cases of malaria in India. Globally, up to 500 million clinical cases of malaria are estimated to occur every year and the disease claims more than one million lives, mostly children under the age of five years and young pregnant women, says the US National Institute of Health.