A cancer drug proved effective against a deadly disease

In a phase II clinical trial, a combination based on the cancer drug imatinib was shown to be 100 percent effective against malaria. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Recently, a variant of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes the most dangerous form of malaria with the highest mortality rate, has become resistant to drugs and has spread widely in Southeast Asia. It turned out that in some areas up to 80 percent of malaria parasites were resistant to drugs.

Researchers from Italy and the United States discovered that the drug imatinib, developed by Novartis to fight chronic myeloid leukemia and other blood cancers, could block the spread of the parasite in blood cell cultures. Immediately after this discovery, human clinical trials of the drug began in the Vietnamese province of Quang Chi. The second phase compared the effectiveness of two therapies – using the standard antimalarial drugs piperaquin and dihydroartemisin and combining imatinib with them. “We did not test imatinib separately because it would be unethical to treat patients suffering from a potentially fatal disease with an untested therapy,” said study group co-leader Professor Philip Lowe of Purdue University.

The combination with imatinib killed 90 percent of the parasites in the body in two days and 100 percent in three. Patients who received the drug also stopped feeling pain twice as quickly. The researchers note that the success of imatinib is probably due to the fact that the drug’s target is not the malaria parasite itself, but the red blood cells it infects, uses to reproduce and then destroys. “Since our target is the red blood cell enzyme, the parasite has no way to gain resistance. It just can’t make the proteins in our red blood cells mutate,” Lowe stressed.