Breakthrough for Indian scientists

Indian scientists have achieved a breakthrough in the search for new anti-malarial compounds of natural origin to combat different strains of the parasites responsible for the dreaded disease.

An interdisciplinary research team comprising scientists drawn from four institutes across the country has zeroed in on two marine organisms that generate chemical compounds with potent anti-malarial activity.

Extracts of more than 200 organisms including different species of marine fungi, seaweeds, mangroves, sponges, cnidarians, molluscs, echinoderms and ascidians were screened during the first two phases of the project which began in 2004. About 25 organisms showed the presence of anti-malarials.

The two most promising candidates are reported to be effective against drug sensitive and resistant strains of the malarial parasites. One of the organisms was found to possess as many as 10 anti-malarial compounds. Some of the promising leads are very effective even at very low concentrations. Efforts are on to patent the findings.

Collaboration

Named ‘Discovering Anti-malarials from Marine Organisms,' the collaborative project involves the Centre for Marine Biodiversity under the University of Kerala, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi; Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), Hyderabad; and the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology (IHBT), Palampur. The Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, is funding the project.

The marine organisms are collected from the seabed, their extracts prepared and subjected to metabolite fingerprinting at the Centre for Marine Biodiversity to detect their biological and chemical features. The extracts are then sent to the ICGEB where they are screened for anti-malarial activity using state-of-the-art high-throughput (HTP) assays for faster identification of active compounds.

While the structural elucidation (determination of the chemical structure) work is done at the IICT, the compounds will be synthesised at the IHBT, to produce biologically active metabolites in the quantities required for further studies and clinical trials.

The University of Kerala has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the ICGEB for collaboration and sharing of intellectual property rights.

The organisms are selected through an elaborate process of underwater observation for marine chemical ecological interactions, followed by field and laboratory experimentation. The samples have been collected mostly from the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay where coral reefs abound.

Global effort

“Drug resistance has emerged as one of the greatest challenges facing malaria control today. Malarial parasites have developed strategies to evade most of the available treatments. This has triggered a global effort to identify novel, better and affordable anti-malarial compounds,” explains K. Padmakumar, Director, Centre for Marine Biodiversity, and one of the principal investigators of the project, who has carried out more than 200 scuba dives to collect samples from the seabed.

The potential anti-malarial compounds are often generated by sedentary marine organisms as a defensive mechanism to deter potential predators or pathogens, reduce the impact of environmental stress, prevent overgrowth or for protection from ultraviolet radiation. “What we are essentially doing is to harness the defensive mechanism of the marine organisms to develop biologically active metabolites that can be used to fight the malarial parasite,” Dr. Padmakumar says.

Third phase

During the third phase of the project, scientists will collect more samples of the two most promising organisms to identify the chemical components that impart the anti-malarial property. This will be followed by laboratory synthesis to obviate the need to harvest from Nature.