Cancer drug found to be effective against malaria

Postdoctoral scientist Alexis Kaushansky and Professor Stefan Kappe found that Nutlin-3, an anti-cancer drug, killed 80-90% of liver cells infected with the malaria parasite in a recent study conducted at Seattle BioMed.

"We knew the malaria parasite goes to the liver, infects liver cells and replicates within them, but we didn't know how it forces the liver cell into submission on a molecular level," Kaushansky said. Kaushansky's background is in cancer biology and she used her previous knowledge when working with Kappe.

One of the challenges to malaria research is the scarcity of infected cells. The Plasmodium parasites, responsible for the development of malaria, only infect a few cells. Isolating the infected cells in an organ as large as the liver is extremely difficult.

When conducting the study, however, a surprising result was found: the same molecular changes that took place during the transformation of normal cellsin to cancer cells is nearly the same transformation that occurred when malaria parasites infect liver cells.

The malaria parasite in particular significantly decreases the activity of p53, a "tumor-suppressor" in infected cells. p53 has been studied thoroughly in the cancer field and many drugs have already been created to increase its activity. When Kaushansky and Kappe gave mice with liver-stage malaria a dose of Nutlin-3, malaria infected cells decreased by 80-90%.

"This is the beginning of a new, exciting research area and much work is needed to bring this to application, including finding liver cell-targeted drug combinations that completely prevent malaria infection," Kappe said. "However, it demonstrates already that new ideas to fight malaria can come from surprising directions, and we must think and work beyond the confines of our study area to come upon the next great discovery."