Dr. Vennerstrom Leads International Antimalarial Drug Discovery Program
Although malaria is not a public health issue in this country, in places such as Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, the disease kills more than 2 million people each year, most of them children and pregnant women, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, an estimated 300 million to 500 million new cases of malaria are diagnosed each year. More than 90 percent of all malaria cases occur in Africa. Also at risk are those who travel to countries where malaria is prevalent.
Jonathan L. Vennerstrom, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, is leading an international antimalarial drug discovery program composed of a team of scientists from the UNMC College of Pharmacy, Monash University in Australia, the Swiss Tropical Institute and F. Hoffmann-LaRoche pharmaceutical company in Switzerland. The Program has been funded by Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) of Geneva, Switzerland since 2001.
The results of the Vennerstrom-led team, in its search for a more potent, more effective and less costly anti-malarial drug candidate, thus far, have been lauded by WHO and were recently featured in the August 19th issue of Nature, the weekly international journal of science. The group has identified a compound, called OZ277, that is currently undergoing Phase 1 clinical testing in the United Kingdom. OZ277 is a synthetic ozonide derivative of artemisinin, a natural product that has been to treat fevers in traditional Chinese herbal medicine for more than 1,500 years. Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd, one of India’s largest pharmaceutical companies and MMV’s pharmaceutical partner, is the clinical trial sponsor.
Although a number of hurdles still remain, getting the project this far is a very significant achievement. “The need to develop a low-cost, potent synthetic antimalarial drug is more urgent than ever,” said Christopher Hentschel, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, MMV. “We are very excited about this project; it has surpassed our expectations. The publication of its development in Nature is another validation that the team has done a fantastic job in moving the project forward with professionalism, dedication and speed. This could be the biggest breakthrough in malaria treatment in 80 years.”
Dr. Vennerstrom and his team are humbled by their success to date and cautiously optimistic as the drug candidate reached a critical milestone, i.e., Phase 1 clinical testing. “This has been a wonderful project. I’ve been blessed with such good people in our laboratory and our project partners. There’s always a chance that drug candidates can fail. So far, so good. It’s way out of our hands now,” Dr. Vennerstrom said.
Yuxiang Dong, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and member of the Project Team, said when the compound was discovered, its potential as an antimalarial agent was not realized until WHO said it was spectacular. “We didn’t think it was a big deal at the time,” Dr. Dong said. “We’ve had tremendous success. To me, it’s a big satisfaction.”
MMV was officially launched in 1999 as a non-profit foundation dedicated to reducing the burden of malaria in disease endemic countries by discovering new affordable antimalarials through effective public-private partnership. MMV currently funds 21 projects. One of MMV’s major sources of funds is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Not one to wait and see what happens, the team continues attempts to perfect the compound to make it better. “We have a number of really good backup compounds should something happen to this one,” said Dr. Vennerstrom, who has been a faculty member in the College of Pharmacy since 1987.