Researchers at Novartis have identified a new target for the treatment of malaria, opening the door to the development of a novel stream of medicines to fight and potentially cure the disease, which kills more than 660,000 people a year.

The Swiss drug giant said that the discovery, which is published in the journal Nature, has uncovered the enzyme phosphatidylinositol-4 kinase (PfPI4K) as a target of the imidazopyrazine class of antimalarial compounds, being developed by its scientists with support from Wellcome Trust and the Medicines for Malaria Venture. 

The enzyme is vital for the growth of multiple strains of the Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria, and is thus necessary for all stages in their life cycles, offering a potent target for the development of the next generation of antimalarials.

The inhibition of PfPI4K has the potential to fight malaria at all stages, which is particularly pertinent given that most drugs currently only work at certain points in the parasite's life-cycle, leaving patients at risk of relapse.

Drug resistance growing

Furthermore, while current therapies are effective against the most common forms of malaria, there is evidence to suggest that efficacy of the artemisinin-derivatives may have been compromised in parts of South-East Asia, with the rise of drug-resistant strains of malaria parasites, highlighting the urgent need for new treatments.

"This new target for malaria provides an avenue to develop the next-generation antimalarial drugs that are capable of preventing, treating and blocking the spread of malaria, a key goal of Novartis," said Thierry Diagana, Head of the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases. 

"With growing resistance to existing therapies, we urgently need new malaria medicines to combat the spread of this deadly disease," stressed Richard Seabrook, Head of Business Development at the Wellcome Trust.

"This discovery is particularly exciting as it identifies a druggable target that is effective in multiple species of the malaria parasite and at all stages of the parasite life cycle, features that are considered vital for a treatment capable of eliminating malaria," he noted.