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PSI researchers discover active agent to combat parasites

Researchers working at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) have identified a chemical compound that impedes the multiplication of single-cell parasites such as the pathogens that cause malaria and toxoplasmosis. Pending additional lab testing, a drug could be developed on this basis.

PSI researchers Aswani Sharma and Natacha Gaillard have found an active agent against parasites.
PSI researchers Aswani Sharma and Natacha Gaillard have found an active agent against parasites. Image Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Markus Fischer

A new active agent against parasites has been discovered at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). According to a press release issued by the PSI, two of its researchers borrowed a principle that has long been successfully used in chemotherapy. This involves administering substances to block the protein tubulin in cancer cells, which is effective as tubulin is key to cell division. Ashwani Sharma and Natacha Gaillard from the Laboratory of Biomolecular Research have now expanded this principle in applying it to single-cell parasites.

To achieve this, the researchers had to decipher the molecular structure of tubulin in certain single-cell parasites known as apicomplexa. This group of single-celled eukaryotic parasites includes the pathogens that cause malaria and toxoplasmosis. To successfully decipher the molecular structure of the protein, the researchers used the Swiss Light Source SLS housed at the PSI and electron microscopy. They then searched for and found the chemical compound capable of inhibiting the protein. They named this parabulin.

Tests carried out by the PSI’s cooperation partner, the University of California, found that the parasite was practically incapable of reproducing in the presence of parabulin. In contrast, parabulin had virtually no effect on human cells. “That is a good sign”, Ashwani Sharma says, adding that: “The substance apparently acts only on the tubulin of the parasite – a basic requirement to be able to use it as a drug against infectious diseases”. The research findings were published on Monday in the journal ‘EMBO Molecular Medicine’.

The PSI has now submitted a patent application and is planning to conduct further tests with parabulin in lab settings. Thereafter, the aim will be to further develop the chemical compound into a drug with the help of the pharmaceutical industry.

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