Harvard researchers announce advances in cerebral malaria treatment

New treatment for cerebral malaria
New treatment for cerebral malaria | Courtesy of

Researchers have recently discovered that a treatment already approved for other diseases could be instrumental in treating cerebral malaria.

Scientists from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health have found that a person’s diet at the beginning of the infection greatly impacts the outcome of cerebral malaria. 

The team discovered a specific impact of the hormone leptin, which appears to be instrumental in the neurological symptoms and death of cerebral malaria patients. Fat tissue secretes leptin hormones when appetites are suppressed, but leptin also triggers adaptive inflammatory and immune responses. These responses rose when a mouse was infected with cerebral malaria.

Researchers realized that reducing leptin (whether pharmacologically, genetically or nutritionally through diets) for the first two days of malaria infection protects individuals against cerebral malaria.

Leptin prompts mTOR protein to react against cytotoxic T cells. There are pharmacologic inhibitors that can aid this process, which is effective because the treatment preserves the blood-to-brain barrier, halting the access of infected blood cells into the brain.

The team administered mice with an mTOR inhibitor called rapamycin. This treatment protected the mice against the common neurological complications from cerebral malaria.

Cerebral malaria is the most severe form of malaria. Patients can experience seizures, coma and eventual death. Approximately 25 percent of cerebral malaria survivors experience cognitive impairment and neurological complications from the disease.

Existing treatments for cerebral malaria are inefficient, often harmful and especially unsafe for children, who make up most cerebral malaria cases. 

Researchers anticipate future trials involving human subjects.