Faster way to find anti-malaria drugs

SINGAPORE - A faster method to find drugs that can be used in tandem to treat malaria has been developed by researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The screening method can potentially find matches in days rather than the previous time frame of years.

NUS researchers are using the method to find drugs that can be used with the anti-malaria drug chloroquine to make it more effective.

In recent years, chloroquine has been found to be ineffective against the parasite that causes the most common and most dangerous form of malaria: Falciparum malaria.

The screening method works by mixing the parasite with chloroquine, which causes the parasite to give off light. The fluorescence level is measured and this acts as a baseline measurement.

The drug to be tested is added to another mixture of the parasite with chloroquine and the fluorescence level is measured.

The test drug is deemed a suitable partner for chloroquine if the fluorescence is greater than the baseline measurement.

The fluorescence level indicates the amount of chloroquine in the parasite. A parasite resistant to the drug will expel it from its body.

So, the parasite gets brighter when the test drug prevents it from expelling chloroquine, and is dimmer when it is resistant.

Initial research using this method has found 10 candidate drugs out of about 1,200 drugs tested. They are likely to be sold commercially in five to 10 years.

The head of the research team, Associate Professor Kevin Tan from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said research on existing drugs is now common among scientists.

"Scientists are trying to find new ways to use drugs which are outdated and hardly used...and make them effective again," he said, adding that using existing drugs is cheaper than making new ones. Prof Tan, who specialises in malaria research, was speaking on the sideline of a forum called the NUS Greater Good Series - The Fight Against Malaria.

Prof Tan's team also found that increasing the dosage of chloroquine makes it more effective, even against drug-resistant malaria parasites.

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