Novartis has entered into a partnership with a group of non-profit and government organizations to develop the next generation of malaria drugs.
The company, which markets anti-malarial medication Coartem (artemether-lumefantrine), is working with the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity in the UK; the Singapore Economic Development Board; and Medicines for Malaria Venture, a non-profit organization in Switzerland.
Paul Herrling, head of corporate research at Novartis and chair of the company's Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD), noted that drug resistance is an inevitable obstacle to treating malaria over the long term -- and drug makers need to stay ahead.
"If we expect potential resistances to occur, now is the time to begin our research," he said.
Researchers sequenced the genome of the malaria parasite in 2002, and Novartis is now hoping to use these new findings in its drug discovery efforts.
It's an effort that the company is pioneering. "In terms of the schematic, using this new genetic information, we are probably among the first," Herrling said.
NITD researchers are also hoping to find a common pathway that links two of the most serious forms of malaria: the deadly malaria tropica as well as malaria tertiana, which because of a tendency to recur can have significant social and economic costs.
Identifying that common pathway between the two malaria parasites --Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax -- leaves open the possibility of developing one drug that can treat multiple forms of the disease. "This is the kind of thing that has become possible," Herrling said.
Unlike simpler viruses, the malaria parasite is less dependent on its human host for its basic survival. For this reason, researchers might some day be able to target parasitic proteins while sparing human proteins.
Elizabeth Winzeler, PhD, is one of the researchers working at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation and the Scripps Research Institute, performing a functional analysis of the parasitic genome.
"Many anti-malarial drugs act against targets that are also found in the human genome," she said, adding that the next generation of drugs could have fewer side effects.
Future malaria therapies are still five to ten years away from commercialization. Winzeler noted that researchers have only identified about the structure and function of about 40 percent of the parasite's proteins.
In addition to developing more targeted therapies, Herrling and Winzeler stressed the need for a single dose treatment -- as well as one that is cheaper to produce and easier to use in the field.
"The problem is not only the availability of drugs," Herrling said. "Even if drugs are arriving in the affected countries, [you have to make sure] the treatments reach the patients."
Novartis already provides Coartem at no profit in countries where malaria in endemic.
"We just need to keep new things in the pipeline," Winzeler said. "Pharmaceutical companies are the best places to do it because they have the infrastructure in place."