They're developed a drug that prevents the parasite from ridding its body of salt, and if it can't do that, it dies.
Malaria is a huge concern across the Pacific, with Papua New Guinea the country with the greatest number of victims, and this breakthrough may offer help in the region.
Speaker:Professor Kiaran Kirik, Australian National University
KIRIK: So I should start by saying Richard that the work was done by Natalie Spillman whose a PhD student and she worked on this for four or five years. The malaria parasite is a single cell creature, it invades the blood cells of the person its infecting, so you have a parasite inside the cell. And a red blood cell is full of salt and salt comes into the parasite. The parasite Natalie showed is actually much leaker to salt than we had really expected. It's like as you said, a leaky boat leaking in water, but that's OK, because the parasite also has and again this is what Natalie discovered a very powerful molecular pump, so it's pumping salt out all the time from inside the red blood cells just like a leaky boat letting in water and pumping out the water and providing the pump works, and that's fine and the boat stays afloat and parasite can survive all the salt coming in. But what we also found and this is work that we did in collaboration with a big group working between Singapore and the United States. They're developing a new anti-malarial drug. They weren't sure how the anti-malarial drug worked. They knew that it killed parasites very effectively. They had identified a particular protein that they thought was involved and as soon as we found out what that protein was, we sat up straight, because we realised it was the salt pump that Natalie was interested in.
So we got together with them. We've been working together with them for a couple of years and now we know that their new drug, which is now actually, it's in clinical trials, it's actually in advanced clinical trials. It interferes with the salt pump and as soon as you add it to the parasite, it blocks the pump, the pump stops pumping, the parasite fills up with salt and we think that's how the parasite dies.
EWART: Now, of course, based on what's been discovered here and the drug that's now available. Are people will be saying is this a cure, but I suppose that the X-factor in all of this is what the parasite does next?
KIRIK: That's exactly right. So the drugs not available quite yet. It is actually in advanced clinical trials, so it's actually being tested against malaria patients as we speak. The hope is that in the just a few years, it will be out there and available, but you're absolutely right. The next question is what does the parasite do? Because every time we've released a drug over many, many decades, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, the parasite has fought back. The parasite has changed to become resistant to the drug and this is a phenomenon on drug-resistance and each time we release a drug, we get better and better at strategies to stop the parasite fighting back, but that's exactly the question. How long before the parasite fights back? Will it fight back and how long will it take? And the answer is yes, it probably will and we hope it takes a long time if at all.
EWART: Is there an explanation though as to why, to me, at least, it appears that the malaria parasite is a lot tougher than others. I mean we've been fighting this thing
forever really and the various breakthroughs have happened and the mutations happen and we have to go and find some other form of drug?
KIRIK: Exactly right. I mean at the heart of it, it's a very complex organism, so it's not a virus, which is actually quite simple, it's not a bacterium. It's very complex, it has a very large number of genes to draw on, which allow it to change in all sorts of sophisticated ways and it's been living with us for a very long time. It's very used to living inside humans. It spends most of its life inside the blood cells hiding away from our immune system, which is why it's been so difficult to get a vaccine and it has a lot of genetic resources to draw on, to become resistant to any chemicals we throw at it. It's a very sophisticated and obviously insidious creature.
EWART: So in terms of ongoing health education. We're not yet in a position or indeed likely to be in a ;position where we can relax against the basics of keeping malaria parasite away in the first place?
KIRIK: Absolutely right. The very first thing and the very best thing we can do is stop ourselves getting bitten by mosquitoes if that's at all possible, long sleeves at dusk and bed nets and things like that. We don't have a vaccine, we don't have many drugs to which the parasite has not become resistant and hopefully that this drug that our colleagues in Singapore and America are developing at Navatis, will make a big difference, but we're not going to eradicate it. It's just too far, it's to widespread, it's going to require continual strategies on all fronts.
EWART: And what about the question of cost in terms of this new drug? I mean will it be affordable, will it widely available to those most at risk?
KIRIK: That's a crucial question, because the cost is an absolutely crucial factor and to be honest, I don't actually know. So the drug development is being done by Novartis, an institute in Singapore, that's leading the push on that and I don't actually know what the cost will be, but it needs to be affordable, because for the people who need it throughout Asia-Pacific, throughout Africa, in many cases, they're not able to afford the high prices that sort of Western medicines command, so it's a fundamental anti-malarials that they have to be affordable. So certainly that's one thing that the developers have in mind.
EWART: And you pointed out, quite rightly right at the beginning of the interview that it was the PhD student Natalie who made this discovery, which has led to a development of this new drug. For a PhD student to make a discovery on this level, I mean that's quite something, isn't it?
KIRIK: Oh, it is. Natalie's an outstanding student and she worked for, she worked very, very hard seven days a week for almost four years and speaking with her over the last few days, there has been quite a lot of interest and the papers been well received and she says she has been working very hard and this kind of makes it all worthwhile. But she is an outstanding student and she's off now pursuing a scientific career in the US.
EWART: And I take it, if she hasn't already got her PhD, there's not much doubt that she will?
KIRIK: No, she got her PhD, exactly for this work actually, so she's now a Doctor Natalie Spillman.
EWART: And for you, when you see something like that happens. I presume you have some oversight in this whole ;process. I mean it is a tremendous achievement for everybody involved?
KIRIK: Look, for most it's been very exciting, because I've been working on malaria for 20 years and I've been interested in salt in malaria for 20 years and I'd tell people, I'm interested and how the parasite pumped salt and they'd say, really, why's that very interesting? And I'd say well, I just think it is very interesting. It was really basic research for a long time and so Natalie worked within the context of this sort of team looking at salt control in the parasite. And then when we realised that a new drug that, and I should say this new drug is actually, it's a brand new chemical structure and this actually the first brand new chemical structure to be in clinical trials against malaria for 20 years, so it's quite an exciting drug and then the realisation of hey, wait a minute. This drug works by interfering with salt control, that was a Eureka moment and kind of said, well, that kind said why it's interesting, It's been worth it working on this for 20 years. So it's an example of how basic science when you don't really have an end aim in sight, can give real revelations that are unexpected.