Plant-derived agent shows promise in the treatment of malaria.

Malaria is caused by the parasite Plasmodium which is transferred to humans by mosquitos feeding on blood. Plasmodium has evolved to evade the human immune system and survive and replicate inside the body.

One of these immune evasion mechanisms involves the activation of a particular protein called TGFbeta as soon as the parasite enters the blood. TGFbeta then switches the immune system from killing infected cells to killing bacteria; one way that the parasite can survive within the host environment.

Vernonia Amygdalina is a species of plant found predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa, using medicinally by local communities for a variety of diseases, including malaria. Research by Dr Richard Beatson from the School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences is working to identify the active agent.

The fact that this plant species is also used by chimpanzees when suffering with malaria is fascinating; these complex behaviors rarely occur by chance.

– Dr Richard Beatson, School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences

Current efforts are focused on identifying similar agents to the most recent effective anti-malarial drug, artemisinin. However resistance to artemisinin is becoming more common meaning new ‘resistance-proof’ agents are desperately needed.

The hope is that parasitic eradication through the manipulation of the host immune system may prove successful in this endeavour; therefore, Dr Beatson turned his focus to immunological assays, collaborating with a wide range of academics at King’s, The London School of Hygiene & Topical Medicine, Oxford University and the not-for-profit Medicines for Malaria Venture in Switzerland.

The initial and unexpected observation was that the protein, TGFbeta, which is produced by many cells, disappeared whenever I added Vernonia Amygdalina to the cultures.

– Dr Richard Beatson, School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences

This is the first known plant-derived immune neutralising agent found and could be used to treat infectious diseases, fibrotic diseases, and cancers. Most importantly, the discovery may lead to subsequent and similar plant-derived discoveries.

The plant kingdom should not be overlooked in the hunt for potential novel immuno-modulating agents. Hopefully this work can add to the weight of evidence legitimising the widespread use of Vernonia Amygdalina extract as an effective and cheap anti-malarial medicine; just as occurred with quinine and artemisinin decades earlier.

– Dr Richard Beatson, School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences

The next steps are to identify the peptide responsible for the binding, manufacture it and assess its inhibitory potential in an animal model of the disease.