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Anti-malaria drug shows promise as Zika virus treatment

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Zika virus made headlines in 2015-16 when the virus grew into an epidemic spreading from Brazil to all across North and South Americas. In the general population, Zika virus produces mild flu-like symptoms. In February 2016, it was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization, following growing evidence that Zika virus can cause serious birth defects in pregnant women and is capable of passing on to the fetus. One such birth defect is microcephaly, a condition where babies’ heads remain smaller than usual and do not develop properly. Microcephaly is an irreversible condition that has no cure.

Preliminary research conducted at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) and UC San Diego School of Medicine have scientists excited at the prospects of a common anti-malarial drug called chloroquine being the key to curing Zika virus as well. Zika virus, like Malaria, is transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes. Chloroquine has a long history of safe use as an anti-malarial drug in pregnant women, is relatively low cost and readily available.

The research findings are significant at a time when the world is still reeling from the recent epidemic of Zika virus. “There is still an urgent need to bolster our preparedness and capacity to respond to the next Zika outbreak,” says Alexey Terskikh, Ph.D., associate professor at SBP. “Our latest research suggests the anti-malaria drug chloroquine may be an effective drug to treat and prevent Zika infections.”
When pregnant mice infected with Zika virus were given Chloroquine through drinking water, it significantly reduced the viral load in maternal blood and neural progenitor cells in the brain of the fetus. The research study is unique as Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) and UC San Diego School of Medicine, will be using a mouse model that transmits the virus very similar to human transmission. Chloroquine can reduce the viral load enough to limit the neurological damage caused in infected newborns.

Some in the Brazilian health agencies suggest repeating the 50s initiative of adding Chloroquine to cooking salt and distributing it in endemic areas as an effective low cost, safe malarial prophylactic. The initiative known as Pinotti’s Method was named after its originator Dr. Mario Pinotti.

There is thus no doubt that Chloroquine, given its clinical effectiveness and safety and its promising emerging role in the treatment of Zika virus, warrants further study.