Let the Hype Begin: South African Researchers May Have Found Magic Pill Against Malaria

A few friends sent me links to recent articles touting the development of a new class of drugs against malaria. Trials in mice have shown that a single dose of the medication can fully eliminate the parasite from the blood with little or no side effects.

I applaud the ongoing efforts of researchers to develop new malaria medications. Chloroquine has long been rendered useless in many parts of the world, and artemisinin based medications, while currently effective, might possibly go the way of chloroquine in the near future. We need more and a wider variety of drugs to fight the disease.

The optimism, however, may be misplaced. First, the researchers have only recently obtained approval for human trials. Until now, the drug has only been tested in mice, which are unable to contract the human strains of malaria. Second, the claims of few side effects are suspect. While serious side effects (like death) are quite obvious, mice have no effective means of communication with their keepers.

Third, what is magical today, may be useless in the future. Drugs are only as good as hosts as parasites allow them to be. Without true trials in the field, we can never know how quickly Plasmodium parasites will adapt to a new set of pressures. Experience to date indicates that they do rather well.

Fourth,before touting unsubstantiated successes in the popular press, the question of genetic compatibility must be addressed. Not all humans (and parasites) are created from the same mold. What works in Zambia might be useless in Cambodia.

I find overly optimistic predictions annoying, though unsurprising in the popular press. Scientists, however, should refrain from making rash predictions as to the success of their efforts. Certainly, this makes us appear wishy washy in the eyes of the public, but ’tis better to err on the side of caution lest we set ourselves up for ridicule and failure.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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