Traditional herbal tea may lead to new malaria treatment

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TWH – Two new studies suggest that a folk herbal remedy from Africa may provide an alternative approach to treating malaria. The research team from Ethiopia, Germany, Switzerland announced their results last month in two publications.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that affects humans and other animals. Malaria is infectious but not contagious, that is spread from person to person like a cold.

The disease is caused by a parasite that is spread into the bloodstream by a specific species of mosquito. When a mosquito bites an infected person, it also takes in some of the parasites within the infected person’s blood. When the same mosquito bites another person, the parasite will have mixed with the mosquito’s saliva, and it is then deposited in the new host. Rarer forms of transmission include the sharing of needles, blood transfusions, and from a mother to her unborn child.

Malaria is considered preventable because how the disease is spread is understood. Clothing, sleeping nets, insecticides, and insect repellents can limit mosquito contact. But those measures can be expensive in poor nations.

The symptoms of malaria include fever, tiredness, vomiting, and headaches. The symptoms are cyclical while the disease lasts. Promptly untreated, however, malaria can progress to severe illness and even death.

World map – Malaria – via CDC

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that while there are about 2,000 cases annually in the United States, the disease is considered rare. It occurs primarily in subtropical and tropical areas of the world where it is a major scourge. As the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, “nearly half of the world’s population was at risk of malaria. Some population groups are at considerably higher risk of contracting malaria and developing severe disease: infants, children under 5 years of age, pregnant women and patients with HIV/AIDS, as well as people with low immunity moving to areas with intense malaria transmission such as migrant workers, mobile populations and travelers.”

The World malaria report 2021 released in early December last year noted that there were 241 million cases of malaria in 2020 compared to 227 million cases in 2019. The diseases killed 627,000 people but the burden of the disease is disproportionately borne by Africa. The report noted that “In 2020 the Region was home to 95% of all malaria cases and 96% of deaths. Children under 5 years of age accounted for about 80% of all malaria deaths in the Region.”

The report added that “Four African countries accounted for just over half of all malaria deaths worldwide: Nigeria (31.9%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (13.2%), United Republic of Tanzania (4.1%) and Mozambique (3.8%).”

The CDC added, “Because malaria causes so much illness and death, the disease is a great drain on many national economies. Since many countries with malaria are already among the poorer nations, the disease maintains a vicious cycle of disease and poverty.”

The World Health Organization noted, “Even before the emergence of COVID-19, global gains against malaria were leveling off, and the world was not on track to reach the 2020 milestones of WHO’s global malaria strategy.”

In October 2021, The World Health Organization made a historic announcement of a groundbreaking malaria vaccine for children. “This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”

While anti-malarial drugs also exist, many can be cost-prohibitive in poorer countries, other are difficult to access, and funding for any treatment or prevention remains a barrier. So any and all ways to impact the spread of malaria saves lives.

The new research published in Molecules focuses on a plant called Ranunculus multifidus Forskk or the African buttercup which is native to sub-Saharan Africa. It is called the common buttercup in South Africa and is widespread throughout the continent. It has been observed from Nigeria through the Arabian Peninsula.

Buttercup Ranunculus multifidus [Photo Credit: Prof. Dr. Kaleab Asres]

Folk knowledge in several African countries noted the use of the African buttercup as a malaria treatment. The leaves of the plant were steeped to make a medicinal tea.

“So far it was not known which ingredients the plant has and which of them might have a healing effect,” says Professor Kaleab Asres from Addis Ababa University. Asres was aware of the use of the plant in traditional medicine and initiated the study.

The researchers made extracts from the plant leaves to test the effectiveness of the medication on infected mice. They tested the medication against a standard treatment of chloroquine. The medication proved to be promising. “Although the extracts did not work as well as chloroquine, they nevertheless had a clearly positive effect on the course of the disease. For example, the mice lost significantly less weight and their body temperature was also more stable than without treatment,” says Professor Peter Imming, one of the authors of the study.

The researchers found that the active ingredient was a substance called, anemonin. Interestingly, Imming explains, “Ranunculus multifidus does not actually contain it. Anemonin is formed when the plant is injured, for example when it is crushed and the inside of its cells comes into contact with air.”

Image credit: Pixabay

Imming added that anemonin finding is good news because many of the parasites that cause malaria have developed resistance of chloroquine. “Anemonin could have the potential to circumvent this resistance,” he said.

In a separate study also published in Molecules, the researchers tested anemonin against other parasites and found it relatively ineffective. They explain they took that as good news. “A substance that attacks all types of cells would also attack human cells – and is therefore a poison,” Imming said.

The next steps of the research stream will be to understand how anemonin works, the so-called mechanism of action, which can help researchers understand how to increase its effectiveness.

If the mechanism is understood, the plant extract could enter clinical trials for safety and effectiveness. The researchers write, “Finally, the results produced in this study may serve as an additional reference in natural product research and may contribute to the further study of antiprotozoal drug discovery. The findings also support the use of the plant in the treatment of malaria in traditional medicine.”

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