Jonathan Vennerstrom, PhD.
A powerful new drug to treat malaria – the invention of a University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy researcher -- will help take the bite out of malaria. In the United States, a mosquito bite seems harmless, but in developing countries it means more than 655,000 deaths a year – mostly in children.
The new drug, Synriam, is considered a breakthrough, as traditional drugs are proving increasingly ineffective against the deadly malarial parasite because of acquired resistance to available drugs. Taken as a tablet once a day for three days, it’s more effective, cheaper, has fewer side effects and does not have to be taken with food.
From 2000 to 2010, Jonathan Vennerstrom, PhD, a professor at the UNMC College of Pharmacy, led an international team that created the drug compound that led to the development of Synriam. Developed by Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals Limited, the medication now is approved for treatment in adults in India. The company also is working to create a children’s formula and make the drug available in Africa, Asia and South America.
Vennerstrom and his team received more than $12 million in grants from Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), a non-profit organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He has been studying malaria for more than 25 years. The research team included scientists at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Switzerland and Monash University in Australia. MMV receives about 60 percent of its funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“With more than 200 million cases of malaria each year, the potential impact this drug could have on saving and improving lives worldwide is significant,” Vennerstrom says. “That’s been our goal and now we are at the finish line. We were very fortunate to receive the support for our project from MMV,” he said. “It is always unpredictable whether or not a drug candidate will be successful.”
Tim Wells, MMV’s chief scientific officer, said the completion of a phase III study in Indian adults and the approval of the combination by the Indian regulators was a major milestone. “We look forward to more data from patients in Africa and from studies with children, since this is where the vast majority of the disease is,” he says.
Courtney Fletcher, PharmD, dean of the UNMC College of Pharmacy, said another benefit of arterolane, the key component in the new drug invented by Vennerstrom, is it’s a synthetic. “This is an importance advance in antimalaria drugs. Since it’s a synthetic drug, it doesn’t depend on the availability of a natural plant source like some other antimalarials, which also makes it less expensive.”
Vennerstrom and his team also have developed a second drug candidate that might be even more superior than the first. It currently is being tested in phase II clinical trials by MMV in Bangkok, Thailand.
“This drug candidate seems to stay in the body longer, and therefore it may be possible to use a single dose instead of three doses,” Vennerstrom says. “We all forget to take our medications from time to time, so compliance becomes much easier when you have a single-dose drug.”
As a child of missionary parents working in Ethiopia, Vennerstrom took medications to prevent malaria.