We continue to commemorate SADC Malaria Week, dedicated to creating awareness and educating the public about malaria and the advances made in the fight against the disease.
In this, Part 2 of the article, we share more insights from Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz, holder of the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control and Head of the Parasite Control Cluster in the University Of Pretoria Institute of Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC), a MRC Collaborative Centre for Malaria Research.
South Africa is on course for the eradication of malaria by 2020 and the malaria control programmes implemented have been hugely effective. South Africa achieved a substantial decline in malaria cases, from 64 624 in 2000 to 5 775 in 2016. However, in spite of the country-based control programmes and the work they do, there are various challenges that make it difficult to completely eradicate the disease.
“With the low-hanging fruits already picked, we are now faced with mopping up the more difficult cases that are influenced by factors such as the increased migration of people, climate change and the ability to sustain effective vector control programmes,” says Prof Birkholtz.
Understanding the benefits of collaboration, Prof. Birkholtz established the South African Malaria Transmission-blocking Consortium consisting of leading local researchers. The consortium is unique on the African continent and has the ability to show that new antimalarial drug candidates capable of curing an infection, could also be used to block transmission of the malaria parasite from humans to mosquitoes.
The consortium works closely with other experts in antimalarial drug discovery in the country, including the DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Drug Discovery at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Prof Kelly Chibale.
Potential drug candidates from University of Cape Town (UCT) are evaluated by the University of Pretoria (UP) and its partners for the ability to kill the transmissible forms of the malaria parasites in humans.
Prof Chibale and his team are making strides in developing new drugs that are able to resist and/or circumvent antimalarial drug resistance. In 2016, the team found a new candidate drug referred to as UCT943.
UCT943 has been added to the global antimalarial drug pipeline with the potential to contribute to malaria prevention, control and eradication. Data shows that UCT943 promises not only greater potency against the parasite but also easier formulation.
“This means that we are able, for the first time, to talk about targeting the parasite for malaria elimination, something that has not been done before. This will have far-reaching consequences in the fight against the disease, giving us innovative tools for malaria control programmes”, says Prof Birkholtz.
The discoveries of new molecules that may contribute to eliminating malaria also supports the growing of a drug discovery industry in South Africa, which is an exciting development for the country.
Collaborating to find innovative solutions to eradicate Malaria
We are in a unique situation in South Africa as several research activities in the country support the elimination strategy, including several SARChI Chairs. If South Africa hopes to eliminate malaria, it makes strategic sense to combine the considerable available expertise.
Prof Birkholtz will lead the newly established Community of Practice (CoP) on Malaria Elimination. This NRF initiative will provide a vehicle to enable the implementation of integrated trans- and multidisciplinary solutions to address societal challenges and to ultimately bring change to the lives of South Africans through evidence-based research findings.
The CoP will incorporate the current expertise of five SARChI Chairs to focus on intervention strategies for malaria elimination including the discovery of novel drug leads (Prof Kelly Chibale) used with optimised delivery systems (Prof Bert Klumperman, SARChI Chair in Advanced Macromolecular Architectures at Stellenbosch University) against both the malaria parasite (Prof Lyn-Marie Birkholtz) and mosquito vectors (Prof Maureen Coetzee, SARChI Chair in Medical Entomology and Vector Control at the University of the Witwatersrand) and modelled within a malaria elimination setting (Prof Jacek Banasiak, SARChI Chair in Mathematical Models and Methods in Biosciences and Bioengineering at UP).
“We have reached the point where we have to maintain the impetus towards the fight against malaria. Since malaria mosquitoes knows no borders, local and regional partnerships are crucial to the elimination of the disease in the region. South Africa has a long history in excellent malaria control and this expertise can be used to take the malaria elimination agenda forward. Importantly, once we have eliminated the disease, or are close to elimination, we should sustain our efforts to remain malaria free after 2020 and prevent the re-introduction of the disease”, says Prof Birkholtz.