Novartis malaria pill aces Thai test

Efforts to develop the first new malaria treatment in 20 years advanced as a pill tested in Thailand from Novartis AG cleared parasites faster than the best medicines, potentially providing a solution to the spread of drug resistance.

In a study among 21 patients in the kingdom, Novartis's KAE609 wiped out half the parasites - a measure of potency - in less than an hour, according to results published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. By comparison, treatments based on artemisinins, the most effective medicines currently in use, took as many as seven hours to do the same, a sign of their waning power, according to a separate study published today.

Novartis said it's trying to get the drug on the market by 2018. New therapies can't come soon enough for health officials battling to stem the swell of artemisinin-resistant malaria, which is now widespread throughout Southeast Asia, according to the second study published today in the New England Journal.

"Radical measures will be necessary in Southeast Asia to prevent resistance to artemisinins and their partner drugs from spreading to the Indian subcontinent and then to Africa," researchers led by Nicholas White at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok wrote.

Malaria struck about 207 million people in 2012 and killed about 627,000 people, or about 1 person every 47 seconds, mostly children in Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Malaria mortality rates have been cut in half since 2000 because of the use of artemisinin-based drugs and insecticide-treated bed nets.

Declining Efficacy

Still, the misuse of artemisinins has contributed to their declining efficacy. It takes six days of treatment to clear the parasites in patients on the Thai-Cambodian border, an area of widespread resistance, instead of the standard three-day course, White and colleagues found.

Artemisinin is an ancient Chinese remedy derived from the leaves of the sweet wormwood tree, and has been the basis of the most effective anti-malaria drugs globally since the mid-1990s.

GlaxoSmithKline Plc said last week it plans to seek regulatory approval for its malaria vaccine, which would be the first inoculation against the disease if approved. London-based Glaxo has said it plans to make a 5% profit on sales of the vaccine, which it will reinvest in research on malaria and other neglected tropical diseases.

Novartis doesn't expect its new drug to be a money-maker either, said Mark Fishman, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. KAE609 was developed at the Novartis Institute of Tropical Diseases in Singapore.

"Undoubtedly it will have to be at minimal if any profit," Mr Fishman said in a telephone interview yesterday. "The key is not whether there's profit, the key is whether patients can get it."

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