UCT malaria team makes new, significant findings

29 July 2002
DR TIM EGAN of the Department of Chemistry and a multidisciplinary team from UCT and the University of the Witwatersrand have performed groundbreaking work on iron metabolism in the malaria parasite.

The group's investigation has unequivocally demonstrated the fate of iron ingested by malaria parasites when they use human haemoglobin (an iron-containing blood protein) as a food source, explains Egan.

The study has shown that the overwhelming portion of this iron is converted to a substance called malaria pigment, challenging recent suggestions that most of the iron is not incorporated into the pigment. "The process is of major importance as it is believed to be the biological target of key antimalarial drugs such as chloroquine," says Egan.

"A deeper understanding of the fundamental chemistry of the malaria parasite is essential if progress is to be made in finding new drugs to overcome the problem of drug resistance."

The team's findings made up the lead story of the June 11 issue of the on-line magazine of the Biochemical Society (UK), Biochemist e-volution. It also appeared as an accelerated communication in the Biochemical Journal in July.

The work called on the expertise of a range of scholars from UCT and Wits. This included Egan's wife, Joanne, as well as UCT's Professor Pete Smith, Dale Taylor, Donelly van Schalkwyk, Jason Walden, Jill Combrinck (all from the Division of Pharmacology) and Professor Trevor Sewell of the Electron Microscope Unit (EMU). The team members from Wits University were Professor Helder Marques and Dr Giovanni Hearne, as well as Skhumbuzo Ntenteni.

Egan was also an invited speaker at the COST B9 conference on Antiprotozoal Chemotherapy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in June.

His trip was sponsored by the journal Trends in Parasitology, for which he has recently been invited to write regular commentaries on antimalarial drugs.

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