[back] Malaria

Nutrient Seen as Possible Malaria Treatment
Friday, February 21, 2003 2:26 p.m. ET

LONDON (Reuters) - A nutrient that is produced naturally in the body and found in some foods could be a potential new treatment for malaria, scientists said on Friday.

A team of international researchers who studied 75 children in Africa discovered that those with the lowest levels of the nutrient arginine suffered the most severe effects of malaria.

They believe that combining arginine, which is used to treat heart and circulatory diseases, with anti-malaria drugs could be a more effective way of combating the mosquito-borne disease that kills someone every 30 seconds.

"Arginine may have potential as a complementary drug to augment existing anti-malarial drugs, and to prevent complications from malaria," said Nicholas Anstey, one of the researchers who worked on the study.

The malaria expert at the Menzies School of Public Health in Darwin, Australia and colleagues in the United States and Tanzania discovered that extremely low levels of arginine and too little of the chemical nitric oxide were linked to the most serious cases of malaria.

Professor Brice Weinberg, of Duke University and the Durham VA Medical Center in North Carolina and a co-author of the research, said arginine can be given orally which is attractive for countries that do not have sophisticated health system.

So far arginine has produced few side effects in people with mild illness but the scientists do not know how it affect very sick people.

"Our plan would be to use conventional drugs that block the growth of the parasite and use this medicine in hopes of boosting the system's nitric oxide production."

Arginine, an amino acid, boosts the production of nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes blood vessels and promotes blood flow by keeping arteries flexible. Nitric oxide can kill parasites.

Malaria is caused by a tiny parasite that is transmitted by the bite of a female mosquito. The disease causes fever, muscle stiffness, sweating and shaking. It afflicts about 300 million people each year and kills more than a million, mostly young children in Africa.

Cerebral malaria is the most deadly form of the disease. Drugs such as chloroquine, quinine and artemesin are used to treat malaria but drug resistance is a growing problem in many areas where malaria is endemic.

The scientists think arginine could be used to treat and possibly to prevent malaria. The researchers said higher levels of arginine and nitric oxide could increase blood flow and stop blood cells infected with the parasite from sticking to the lining of blood vessels.

In laboratory studies nitric oxide kills the malaria parasites and stops them from growing. The scientists also believe high levels of nitric oxide can inhibit a person from getting ill if they are infected.

"It has been shown in human and animal experiments that nitric oxide can prevent the production of other molecules in the body that make a person sick," Weinberg added.

2003 Reuters Limited.