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This Breast Cancer Drug May Help Fight Malaria Too, Scientists Say

A child dies of malaria every two minutes, according to the World Health Organization, and the battle against the disease is no longer progressing. Though antimalarial drugs exist, resistant strains of the disease-causing Plasmodium parasite are emerging.

Now, scientists have found that a breast cancer drug called tamoxifen has the potential to be repurposed to fight malaria. Professor Julio Gallego-Delgado of Lehman College was an author on the study, published in Malaria Journal.

Tamoxifen is used to both treat and prevent certain types of breast cancer, and is considered relatively inexpensive, safe, and effective. Though one might not normally associate breast cancer with malaria, researchers found that tamoxifen can be antiparasitic—so Gallego-Delgado and co-authors wondered if it could help in the fight against malaria.

The scientists tested tamoxifen’s effect in red blood cells containing one of the human strains of Plasmodium, as well as in a mouse model. In both cases, tamoxifen was effective in fighting malaria.

Scientists are also trying to figure out why only 1% of patients develop the life-threatening version of malaria. A technology called Cre/loxP, which introduces genetic changes into organisms, could help with the study of this type of malaria. But Cre/loxP also relies on tamoxifen to trigger the genetic change. If the Cre/loxP outcome successfully combats malaria, scientists wouldn’t know whether it was due to the genetic tool or the tamoxifen.

“The consequences of this work are double,” Gallego-Delgado said. “On one hand we have a drug that can be explored and repurposed as new antimalarial treatment, but on the other hand, that same effect limits the use of a powerful technology to study malaria.”

To solve the problem, the researchers propose an alternative for studies involving mice: Use tamoxifen as part of the Cre/loxP system for one week to trigger the genetic change, then keep them free of tamoxifen for a week before studying their reaction to the malaria parasite. “Now the effect you see will be exclusively due to the ‘gene deletion,'” Gallego-Delgado said.

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