NAMIBIA: Team to research drug-resistant malaria

The University of Namibia has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team of scientists to conduct research into malaria, amid concerns over the growing global problem of drug-resistant malaria. The Malaria Research Project aims to make more malaria treatments available in the country and monitor emerging resistance to drugs.

The new project is a collaborative effort between the Innovation and Value Addition Programme of the university's Multi-disciplinary Research Centre (MRC) and the departments of biological sciences, chemistry and biochemistry in the faculty of science.

Malaria is endemic in parts of Namibia, especially the Caprivi region in the north-east. In 2005 there were over 400,000 outpatient cases of malaria in the country, which has a population of some two million people. In 2009 cases dropped to around 80,000 thanks to interventions by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, but malaria remains a major cause of disease and death.

Over many years Professor Enos Kiremire, an inorganic chemist and dean of the science faculty at the University of Namibia, has developed organo-metallic complexes (compounds). Some of these synthetic compounds have shown remarkable anti-malaria activity.

Dr Hina MuAshekele, director of the MRC and coordinator of the Malaria Research Project, told University World News that Kiremire used to send his compounds to the University of Cape Town (UCT) for characterisation, to determine their structure and properties.

"UCT would then send the compounds to the University of California at San Francisco for evaluation with respect to biological activity against malaria. The responses would be communicated to Kiremire through UCT," MuAshekele said.

The process was circuitous and costly, and the Malaria Research Project was established to resolve these problems.

Kiremire is the team leader of the chemistry group and biomedical scientist Dr Ronnie Bock leads the bio-molecular group. Dr Davis Mumbengegwi, a pharmaceutical scientist, is the lead bio-molecular researcher and the team includes molecular biologist Dr Percy Chimwamurombe, natural products chemist Dr Renate Hans and scores of postgraduate science students.

"Scientists manning this lab will go beyond what the University of San Francisco was doing. Safety issues will also be addressed to ensure that the compounds are safe," said Bock.

The laboratory's activities will expand to include evaluation of natural plant products as complementary medicines. Recently the MRC conducted a baseline survey in Oshikoto in north-central Namibia, which confirmed that some traditional healers were using plant and tree products to treat symptoms similar to malaria. Extracts from some of those plants will be studied for activity against malaria.

Mumbengegwi said the ultimate objective would be to put more drugs in the malaria pipeline, and to profile the malaria parasite in the country through molecular surveillance in order to monitor emerging resistance to drugs.

"The World Health Organization recommends the use of Artemisin Combination Therapy as the first line treatment for malaria, but there are reports of resistance to that in Thailand, Cambodia and reduced sensitivity in parts of Africa," Mumbengegwi explained.

The project has received support from the ministries of health and education as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency. It received an equipment grant from Turner Biosystems and reference reagents from the Malaria Research Reference and Reagent Resource Centre, both in the US.

The research should please Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba, who has appealed to tertiary institutions to conduct more applied research as his government strives towards national and international development goals.