A long-forgotten malaria drug thought to be ineffective has been reconsidered by scientists at an Australian university who have demonstrated its brilliant ability to fight the deadly disease.
The discovery was made at the University of Melbourne where researchers picked up a drug first introduced 16 years ago called atovaquone, which was quickly discarded because it looked like the malaria parasite quickly developed resistance to it.
Lead author Professor Geoff McFadden told The Huffington Post Australia they discovered this resistance was only temporary, and that the drug, which can be taken as a tablet, did in fact kill the parasites.
"This drug has been put on the backburner really for quite a few years," McFadden told HuffPost Australia.
"People assumed resistance would get away from us but understanding what we do now about mozzies and metabolism, we can see that the parasites aren't actually able to make it to the point of infecting another person."
A malaria parasite growing inside a mosquito.
McFadden said malaria drugs were usually only effective for a few years until the parasite developed resistance to it.
“One of the biggest setbacks of controlling malaria is drug resistance,” McFadden said.
“We’ve had a number of effective drugs but the parasites become resistant and that resistance spreads everywhere.
“Since WWII, we’ve had a cycle where a drug is found to be effective, it’s used and then resistance appears in one area and as people move and spread, the resistance spreads too and we have to go back to the start.”
How Malaria Moves From Mosquitoes To Humans
Malaria is a parasite that can infect mosquitoes and humans as well as other animals like reptiles and birds.
Only female mosquitoes feed on blood, and when a mosquito drinks malaria-infected blood, the parasite sets up inside its body.
After a three-week process, the malaria parasites have moved into the mosquito's salivary gland, ready to be passed on to the next animal it bites.
McFadden said this drug affected parasites so greatly that while it was inside a mosquito, it was spending so much time fighting the drug that it was not able to make it to the salivary gland to be passed on.
This means the parasite cannot move from mosquito to human and also cannot pass on any immunity it has developed.
McFadden said the next step was to check field resistance outside of a lab, possibly in Kenya or Zambia.
"It's exciting and terrifying," McFadden said.
"The latest report found 214 million people were infected and 438,000 died in 2015 and I try to put that in context for people by saying that in every nine days, malaria killed more people than the entire Ebola outbreak.
Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.
"With no disrespect to the poor people who died of Ebola, I think it shoes it’s one of those problems that is underexposed. Ebola could have come to our borders but malaria can't really, so people tend not to care about it in the same way.
"We have a very good lab result and the hope is this will drastically improve the way we battle the disease."
There is currently no malaria vaccine but global disease prevention programs focus on prevention through fumigating mosquito-prone areas, encouraging people to use netting and repellent and take prophylactic malaria medication where possible.