North

The next antimalarial drug could come from fungus in Frobisher Bay, study finds

A chemical discovered in fungus from the bottom of Frobisher Bay, Nunavut, has shown promise in killing drug-resistant strains of malaria.

A synthetic version of a chemical discovered in the fungus kills the malaria parasite

An illustration showing the synthetic compound stopping the malaria parasite from infecting human red blood cells. (Massouh bioMEDia submitted by Normand Voyer)

A chemical discovered in fungus from the bottom of Frobisher Bay, Nunavut, has shown promise in killing drug-resistant strains of malaria.

Adding the chemical to a vial of human blood with the parasite that causes malaria caused the parasite to die within 72 hours, according to chemist Normand Voyer.

He says that's at least as effective as the current antimalarial drugs on the market — the difference being the parasites have not seen this chemical before, so they aren't resistant to it yet.

These findings, published in the journal Chemical Communications last month, are still a long way from a commercial drug, but the lab is taking the next step now.

Microbiologist Dave Richard is looking at how the chemical kills the parasite, before other chemists research potential dosages and side effects.

Normand Voyer’s lab at the University of Laval in Quebec City specializes in making synthetic versions of natural products to use in medicine. (Submitted by Normand Voyer)

Malaria kills half a million people each year according to the World Health Organization, so parasites that are even partially unresponsive to drug treatment are a concern.

Northern plant potential

Voyer's lab at the University of Laval in Quebec City specializes in making synthetic versions of natural products to use in medicine.

He says 40 per cent of drugs use chemicals found in nature or synthetic versions of those chemicals — for example the chemotherapy drug Taxol, used to treat breast cancer, is synthesized from a chemical found in the bark of Pacific Yew trees.

"We go investigate [in nature] because we can find some amazing structures that chemists and pharmaceutical companies cannot even imagine," said Voyer.

For the last five years, Voyer's lab has been focused on the untapped potential of northern plants, of which he says only three per cent have been surveyed for the chemicals they contain.

The microscopic mushroom in this study was discovered in 2017 by a group of scientists led by Russell Kerr from the University of Prince Edward Island.

Kerr's research group found four never-before discovered chemical compounds in the Mortierella fungus and called them mortiamides A, B, C, and D.

There are 150 million known chemical compounds in the world — everything from lab-made chemicals like Teflon to the chemical that gives pepper its spiciness, piperine.

So four new chemicals were added to that list of 150 million chemicals.

Since the quantities of the compounds was so small, Kerr reported there was no antibacterial activity to the new chemicals.

But Voyer was intrigued by Kerr's findings. His grad student, Christoper Bérubé, made an identical version of the four chemicals in the lab in quantities that would be easier to play around with.

Alexandre Borgia and Christopher Bérubé are graduate students who synthesized samples of mortiamides in the University of Laval laboratory. (Submitted by Normand Voyer)

All four looked similar in composition to other chemicals used in malaria treatments, but Richard found that mortiamide B was the only one that was effective at killing the malaria parasite.

Voyer's lab didn't find the mortiamides, but it has found two other new chemical compounds in northern plants, one in a lichen that may help the plant live through the long sunlit days of northern summer.

"Northern ecosystems' severe environmental conditions force living organisms to adapt to face high UV radiation, low temperatures, low nutrient inputs, and other stresses," the article said.

The chemicals the plants create to adapt to their environment, may be useful to humans in the same way or others.

For example the chemical that offers UV protection for the lichen may become the next active ingredient in sunscreen, he said.

Researchers from Voyer's lab head out this summer to Nunavik to collect more samples for testing.

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