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Scientists have developed a potentially powerful new drug against malaria, inspired by a chemical found in sweet wormwood, a Chinese herb that has been used to treat fevers for 1,500 years. The chemical, artemisinin, kills malaria parasites outright but its extraction from the plant is inefficient and artemisinin-based drugs used today are expensive compared to older, less effective therapies.

To address these obstacles, the researchers, led by Jonathan Vennerstrom of the University of Nebraska Medical Centre, devised a 'wish list' of properties and set about creating a synthetic molecule that would work in the same way in the same way as artemisinin but be cheaper and easier to mass produce.

The drug they produced  — called 0Z277 — has been successfully tested in animals and the researchers say it is more effective and longer lasting than existing artemisinin-based drugs. And, as its structure is simple, scaling up its production will be economically feasible, raising the prospect of cheaper anti-malaria drugs for developing countries. The research was supported by the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the World Health Organisation. The first human trials of the new drug began recently.

Link to full news and views story in Nature

Link to full paper by Jonathan Vennerstrom et al in Nature

Link to Nature's malaria outlook

References: Nature 430, 838 (2004) / Nature 430, 900 (2004)

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