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With winter already on the horizon, mosquitoes and malaria might seem as remote as the tropical weather (and sunny beaches) usually associated with the disease. But that's just what Dr. Lakshmi Kotra, Director, Centre for Molecular Design and Preformulations, UHN, and his team are working on. The team recently announced the establishment of the Malaria Consortium—a global partnership which has put malaria on notice.
Existing malaria drugs are becoming less and less effective, as drug-resistant strains of the disease emerge. Over the last 30 years, there have been very few new drugs introduced to fight malaria.
Most diseases have multiple classes of drugs available to doctors to try different ones, depending on the patient and the specific nature of the illness. For example, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and acetylsalicylic acid—commonly found as Advil, Tylenol and Aspirin—are all different classes of drugs used to treat pain.
Current research into malaria drugs, however, is largely focused on existing drug classes. So the consortium is hoping to develop an entirely new class of drugs; ones that will also, by their design, hinder the emergence of drug resistance.
Dr. Kotra, who has been a key lead in the project since the first small steps into drug development were taken as early as 2003, was essential in bringing together the consortium partners, finding grant funding, and managing the project through the various stages. In addition to UHN, the other partners are the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, headquartered in Italy (with offices in India and South Africa), Birla Institute of Technology and Science and Lifecare Innovations, both in India, and Therapure Biopharma, out of Mississauga.
The consortium highlights not just the importance of developing new malaria drugs. It's also reflective of the type of collaboration that goes into bringing any new drug to the market—all the different people and skills that have to come together to make a discovery into reality.
"There is no way a single person, or research group, can do it," explains Dr. Kotra. "Because there's the research, the business—everything. There are so many parts to getting it to the point of a doctor writing a prescription."
A partnership is the obvious, and only, way to work, because it brings together varying skill sets and strengths. In this case, many of the necessary elements have been brought to the table by partners in India. For example, we don't have malaria patients here in Canada in order to perform clinical trials. Dr. Kotra also points out that Canada is a relatively small player when it comes to biotech while drug development and pharmaceuticals are a strength there.
He also credits the UHN Technology Development and Commercialization Office (TDC) with their work in bringing the consortium to reality.
"The commercialization team have been fantastic. Anything of this international scope involves lots of complex negotiations that are beyond the research team," he says. That's where the TDC steps in to lead negotiations and draft the agreements necessary for the parties to work together in creating new technologies and drugs.
"And at the end of the day, the support of the UHN community and researchers really does matter. Otherwise, we would be swimming against the currents."