Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) estimates billions of people, especially children and pregnant women, are at risk of malaria in more than 90 countries, inhabited by 40 per cent of the world’s population.

Associate Professor Vicky Avery (pictured) from the Eskitis Institute says although malaria pre-dated written history and significant drug development research had been undertaken, malaria still kills one child every 30 seconds and between one and two million people annually worldwide.

“The malaria parasite, transmitted by mosquitoes, has the potential to develop resistance to most of the drugs in the market,” Associate Professor Avery said.

“The World Health Organisation recommends a combination therapy, which involves taking several drugs simultaneously. This means if a parasite is resistant to one drug, another one should still be effective.

“Therefore, the ideal scenario is a single tablet combining powerful drugs given to the patient in one dose.”

Associate Professor Avery said one of the most potent and effective anti-malarial drugs artemisinin, derived from a Chinese plant, had not yet faced the issue of resistance.

“Artemisinin however is dependent on the supply of the plant and thus raises sustainability concerns.

“Researchers are actively working to find new drugs that are affordable, potent, sustainable, safe for human consumption, and can be readily marketed to the developing countries, where the disease is rampant,” she said.

The Eskitis Institute currently screens natural products and synthetic compounds in the search for new drug targets to treat a variety of different diseases.

Since 1993, the Institute has built a natural product screening collection containing more than 300,000 natural products derived from more than 35,000 samples of plants and marine invertebrates collected from tropical Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef, Tasmania, Papua New Guinea and China.

Associate Professor Avery said they were now also starting to build a synthetic compound library as part of the Queensland Compound Library.

“Not only do we have access to diverse libraries, we have Australia’s best automated screening facility to rapidly assess the effect of different compounds on cell function,” she said.

Senior Research Assistant Sandra Duffy said state-of-the-art high throughput screening (HTS) and high content imaging had made it possible to undertake thousands of experiments to identify anti-malarial compounds in a relatively short time while providing considerably more information than previous methods.

“We’ve recently achieved two important milestones in our bid to identify compounds that can inhibit the parasites’ growth without affecting the body’s normal cells. We’ve developed a new HTS assay (or test) and completed the screening of thousands of natural products,” Ms Duffy said.

“Once we process the screening data and identify the promising compounds, we will look into whether the compound is safe for humans and can be synthesised.

“A recent Smart State Innovation grant will help us to use these compounds to identify new drug targets for malaria and study the biological processes to understand how the compounds inhibit parasite growth,” she said.

Associate Professor Avery stated the research to fight malaria, funded by the Medicines for Malaria Venture, was a collaborative effort involving the Australian Army Malaria Institute, the Queensland Institute for Medical Research and Monash University’s Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation.