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Antifungal compound against malaria

A group of chemical compounds used by strains of tropical algae to ward off harmful fungi may hold promising anti-malaria properties. The compounds are part of a unique chemical signaling system that the algae use to attack their enemies - and may provide a wealth of potential new medicinal compounds.

Julia Kubanek, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, holds samples of tropical algae whose surface chemicals are being studied for their potential against malaria. Image: Gary Meek
Julia Kubanek, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, holds samples of tropical algae whose surface chemicals are being studied for their potential against malaria. Image: Gary Meek

Using an innovative analytical method, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that unique antifungal molecules are not evenly distributed over the surface of the algae, but are concentrated in specific locations - probably those where damage may increase the risk of fungal infection.

The study, in which the family of new compounds, known as bromophycolides, was discovered, is part of a long-term study regarding chemical signaling systems found in various organisms living in coral reefs.

"The language of nature's chemistry has existed for billions of years, and it is essential to the survival of these species," said Julia Kubanek, a professor in the School of Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "We can take advantage of these chemical processes to benefit humans in the form of new treatments against diseases that attack us."

More than a million people die every year from malaria, caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum. This parasite managed to develop resistance to many antimalarial drugs and began to show resistance to the drug artemisinin - the most important drug in this field today. The stakes in this issue are high since half of the world's population is at risk of contracting this disease.

"The compounds we found are promising substances for treatment against malaria, and they work through an interesting mechanism that we are examining," explains the researcher. "There are only a small number of drugs left that are effective against malaria in all parts of the world, so we hope that these innovative compounds will continue to show promise in the development of new drugs."

In initial laboratory experiments, the compounds did show effectiveness against malaria, and the researchers' next step is to test their effectiveness in mice. As with other potential drugs, the chance that this compound will have the exact desired chemistry to be useful in a human is relatively small. These compounds are synthesized in the laboratories themselves, both so that there are sufficient quantities for testing them, and also to change their chemical composition in order to improve their activity, or reduce their side effects. Ultimately, the researchers hope that in the future it will be possible to genetically modify yeast or other microorganisms so that they produce large amounts of this substance.

The researchers discovered the antifungal compounds found in the colored spots from the algae through the use of a new analytical method known as desorption electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (DESI-MS). These findings are part of research conducted at the university where scientists are cataloging and testing natural compounds originating from more than eight hundred species of life found in the waters surrounding the Fiji Islands. The researchers were specifically interested in these algae because they seemed to be specially adapted in their fight against bacterial infections.

"The algae organizes its defense systems in a way that blocks the entry points of the harmful bacteria that could penetrate it and cause disease," explains the researcher. "Algae do not have an immune response like the one that exists in humans. Instead, they contain chemical compounds within their tissues that protect them from the bacteria." The researchers were able to isolate over thirty new compounds from the algae, and they hope to find many more useful compounds.

The news about the study

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