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Viagra Enlists in Fight Against Malaria

Viagra revolutionized the treatment of erectile dysfunction and is useful in treating a wide range of health conditions.

Viagra revolutionized the treatment of erectile dysfunction and is useful in treating a wide range of health conditions.

Viagra can do much more than help men who have erectile dysfunction.

Studies have found that the drug, which belongs to a drug class called PDE-5 inhibitors, could help burn fat, treat altitude sickness, and even help cut flowers stay fresh for up to a week longer than they would otherwise (an expensive gardening solution, however). A new study, originating from the Pasteur Institute in France, has found that Viagra could help combat one of the world’s biggest health threats: malaria.

Around half the population of the world is at risk for malaria. Most cases of malaria and most deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, but malaria is also a risk in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and some parts of Europe, according to the World Health Organization.

A paper with the intimidating title, “cAMP-Signalling Regulates Gametocyte-Infected Erythrocyte Deformability Required for Malaria Parasite Transmission” recently appeared in PLOS Pathogens, and the bottom line of the study is that Viagra may be useful in preventing the transmission of malaria.

The Toll That Malaria Takes

If these findings are borne out, it could be a really big deal. The strain of malaria, Plasmodium falciparum, which was studied is the most deadly form of the disease, and half a million people die of it each year. The disease is caused by parasites that are transmitted to humans by the bites of infected mosquitoes. It’s preventable and curable, but it’s still a major world health problem. According to the World Health Organization, children in Africa are the most likely victims, and every minute an African child dies from malaria. There are several different strains of malaria, but Plasmodium falciparum is the biggest problem, and it’s the one researchers believe Viagra may help prevent transmission of.

Rather Than Stopping Mosquito-to-Human Transmission, It’s The Other Way Around

If what researchers believe is actually the case, Viagra wouldn’t stop transmission of malaria from mosquitoes to humans, but rather the transmission of malaria from humans to mosquitoes, which is how the disease gets from human to human. If researchers can develop ways to prevent mosquitoes from “catching” malaria from infected humans, the result could be a significant drop in transmission rates and potentially thousands of lives saved every year – mostly in young children under the age of five. Presumably, other malaria treatment and prevention methods wouldn’t go away, but could be supplemented by a new strategy. So how does it work?

Viagra Appears to Affect the Parasites Inside Red Blood Cells

It appears that Viagra facilitates the elimination of malaria-infected red blood cells by the spleen. The Plasmodium falciparum strain of malaria “camouflages” itself inside the human body by secreting chemicals that make infected red blood cells appear healthy, so the immune system doesn’t attack them.

Viagra appears to prevent the organism from secreting those chemicals. This causes the parasites within the red blood cells to stiffen. When this happens, the immune system can detect the cells where malaria is hiding. When the spleen encounters red blood cells that are abnormal, stiff, or old, it traps and filters them out of circulation. The cells are ultimately removed from the body before they can be transmitted to the strain of mosquitoes that spreads malaria.

A study co-author from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine says that inhibiting malaria PDE enzymes or deleting genes that encode them can disrupt malaria growth and transmission. Perhaps ironically, the Viagra causes the “sexual” forms of the parasite to become stiff, which causes the spleen to flag them for removal.

How Malaria Is Transmitted

A number of factors about the parasite itself, the host, the environment, and the mosquito affect the transmission of malaria, and the more means of transmission are disrupted, the better for containing spread of the disease. Mosquitoes from the genus Anopheles are the ones that transmit malaria, and there are about 20 different species that are dangerous. These insects typically bite at night and breed in water. Some species prefer to breed in puddles, rice fields, and even hoof prints.

Transmission of malaria requires human hosts and conditions amenable to mosquito breeding.

Transmission of malaria requires human hosts and conditions amenable to mosquito breeding.

Rainfall, temperature, and humidity affect how successful mosquitoes are at breeding, and malaria infections typically peak just after the rainy season in affected areas. Epidemics can occur when the climate allows a lot of successful mosquito breeding in areas where the people have little or no immunity to malaria (which is acquired by the immune system having fought off malaria previously). It can be a real problem in places like refugee camps.

What’s Next?

Eradicating malaria is a huge undertaking, and the “silver bullet” would be a treatment that targets pathways that are essential for the parasites but absent in humans. This treatment, in the opinion of researchers, is an “inverted silver bullet” that may open up new opportunities to develop novel interventions that can better halt the spread of this infectious disease that is one of the deadliest in history.

We’re a long way from prescribing Viagra to people who have been exposed to malaria, but the recent research raises some exciting possibilities and indicates yet another possible use for a drug that has proven to be far more versatile than was expected. Viagra started out as a possible treatment for a painful heart condition called angina. It turned out it didn’t work so well for that, but its side effect of making it easier to get and sustain erections turned Viagra from a failed heart disease treatment to a blockbuster drug that has changed millions of people’s lives for the better.

Conclusion

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Don Amerman has spent more than three decades in the business of writing and editing. During the last 15 years, his focus has been on freelance writing. For almost all of his writing, He has done all of his own research, both online and off, including telephone and face-to-face interviews where possible. Don Amerman on Google+