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[BEIJING] Scientists have developed a new compound that they say could be used to treat the symptoms of severe malaria, potentially saving many lives.

The researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden published their findings in PLoS Pathogens last week (29 September).

The most dangerous form of malaria is caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which kills two million people each year.

When the parasites enter their hosts' red blood cells, they produce proteins that make the cells stick together or to the walls of blood vessels.

This blocks the flow of blood to the brain and other organs, and causes anaemia, respiratory problems and brain dysfunction.

Previously people with this type of malaria were treated with an anti-clotting agent called heparin, together with drugs to kill the parasites.

But heparin has been abandoned as it also causes serious side effects such as bleeding in the brain.

The Swedish team led by Mats Wahlgren have created a new compound by altering the chemical structure of heparin. The novel drug can prevent infected blood cells from binding together and release blood cells already bound to each other, but does not cause heparin's side effects.

The scientists injected the compound into rats and monkeys infected with Plasmodium falciparium and found that it prevented blood-cell binding by up to 80 per cent. 

The compound is still in the early stages of testing, and is yet to go through pre-clinical trials, but the scientists say it shows promise as a way to prevent the symptoms of severe malaria, and could also reduce the number of deaths from the disease.

Link to full paper in PLoS Pathogens

Reference: PLoS Pathogens 2, e100 (2006)

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