Cape Town - The development of a single-dose anti-malarial drug by the University of Cape Town (UCT) could help Africa and the world tackle a disease which claims almost a million lives a year, the Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said on Tuesday.
The new molecule, developed by the UCT's Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3-D), was last month selected by Switzerland's Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) for further development.
It will now undergo a lengthy period of clinical trials and has the potential to become a single-dose cure for all strains of malaria and might also be able to block the transmission of the parasite from person to person.
Announcing the launch of a new compound for further development at UCT, Pandor said the new compound, which the department has already funded the development of to the tune of R25 million, has already been found to be a complete cure for animals infected by malaria.
The development of the drug has also helped train 10 local scientists and helped cement relations with an international partner, the MMV based in Switzerland.
Pandor lauded the research partnership between the MMV and the H3-D centre and said it was essential to see African researchers involved in finding solutions to African problems.
She said South Africa now had recently made significant progress in developing the basic sciences that underpin infectious disease research in the fields of immunology, virology, bio-chemistry, microbiology and genetics.
With the majority of the more than a billion people infected by communicable diseases located in developing countries, new research into neglected diseases was crucial, the minister said.
The director of H3-D, Professor Kelly Chibale, said the new drug was important, especially as others had proved ineffective in tackling parasites that had become drug resistant.
"When we tested this molecule in animals that are infected with parasites, with a single low dose of this molecule, we could cure the infection completely," he said.
The H3-D team had, with help from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Australia's Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation and India's Syngene, spent 18 months in developing a candidate molecule suitable for preclinical development.
Chibale commended the Department of Science and Technology for its research chairs initiatives, saying his research chair had afforded him the time to put together a team to carry out the research into an anti-malaria drug and was geared to training the next generation of researchers.
"This is not something that would have happened if I had been carrying a heavy load of teaching commitments and I think this is something unique and special about this country [the research chairs initiative]," he said.
Dr Tim Wells, the MMV's chief scientific officer, said if all goes well, the drug could expect to hit the market by 2020. He added that the clinical development phase would take around seven years - costing about R20 million a year.
He said the aim was to make it available to ordinary Africans, at affordable rates of less than a dollar a dose.
Wells said though a vaccine for African malaria was being developed for 2015, there would still be a need for the medication in a drug form.
He added that medical trials had shown that it only had the possibility of reducing the death rate by 50%.