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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hopes for HIV Drug as Weapon Against Malaria

By Kilian Melloy -

Researchers hope that advances in medicine could usher in a new weapon in the fight against two diseases that have proven tough to put down: HIV and malaria, reported on May 3.

HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is spread through exposure to bodily fluids such as blood or semen, which means that it can be transmitted sexually or via shared needles, as well as through blood transfusions or organ transplants if the donor is HIV+. Malaria, similarly, has a blood connection: The disease is caused by a parasite that lives in the gut of mosquitoes, and enters the human body via the insects’ bites. (HIV cannot be spread by mosquitoes.)

The two afflictions also seem to share a vulnerability to protease inhibitors, the article reported. Protease inhibitors impact the replication of HIV by blocking the virus’ ability to create crucial proteins. This is the result of the inhibitors targeting proteases, which are enzymes used by the virus in the protein-shaping part of the replication process.

Researchers have identified protease inhibitors as having a positive health effect on patients with malaria, the article said, leading them to theorize that similar protein-shaping processes are part of the life cycle of the parasite that causes malaria.

HIV, like malaria, is prevalent in some parts of Africa, where a large percentage of cases involve heterosexuals. Researchers favor using protease inhibitors alone to keep HIV cases in Africa in check in light of the new discovery, the article reported.

"In Africa, where HIV and malaria overlap a lot, the HIV drugs we use should be the protease inhibitors," said Photini Sinnis, who leads the Medical Parasitology Laboratory at the NYU Langone Medical Center. "Then they would have the added benefit of inhibiting malaria infection."

"At the moment, protease inhibitors are only useful for fighting malaria in people who already have HIV," the LiveScience article noted. "They are more toxic than many of the drugs used to combat malaria by itself, and so wouldn’t be given to a person just to treat malaria. But if protease inhibitors can be adjusted to be less toxic, they could be viable as stand-alone malaria medicine."

That would mark a major advance, the article said, because malaria adapts quickly to new drugs as they are developed and deployed in the ongoing effort to keep the disease in check.

"If we could find the target protease, we could design drugs that are better at targeting it, without the toxicity," theorized Sinnis.

Another group of researchers have pinpointed a protease in a similar parasite that they think may be present in the malarial strain. If so, then treatments developed based on work with the related parasite--called Leishmania Ddi1--could be used against malaria as well.

If the research pans out, drugs developed in response to the AIDS crisis could prove invaluable in fighting the far older malaria pandemic, the LiveScience article noted.

Kilian Melloy is EDGE Media Network’s Web Producer and Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes aggregate news stories and commentary for EDGE.

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