Dr Andrea Ruecker

Research Area: Cell and Molecular Biology
Technology Exchange: Drug discovery and Protein interaction
Scientific Themes: Immunology & Infectious Disease and Physiology, Cellular & Molecular Biology
Keywords: Malaria, elimination, Plasmodium falciparum, transmission, gametocyte, drug screening
Fluorescence in situ hybridisation (FISH) of Plasmodium falciparum mature stage V gametocytes (green) and DNA (blue).

Fluorescence in situ hybridisation (FISH) of Plasmodium falciparum mature stage V gametocytes ...

Dr Andrea Ruecker is a Senior Postdoctoral Researcher and Scientist at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok, Thailand. Her main research focuses on P. falciparum malaria transmission blocking interventions within the human host

RESEARCH FOCUS

Understanding and targeting P. falciparum gametocyte biology to block malaria transmission

  • Investigation into the impact of current and future antimalarials on early and late stage male and female gametocytes in vitro and in malaria patients
  • Development of a novel translational toolkit to assess the gametocytocidal and gametocidal impact of antimalarials in malaria patients

BACKGROUND

It is the mature male and female gametocyte which is solely responsible for malaria transmission via the mosquito vector. In Plasmodium falciparum, the causative agent of the most severe form of malaria, the maturation of gametocytes takes ~10-12 days in the human host before the uptake by the mosquito and onward development. Most current antimalarials have no effect on mature P. falciparum gametocytes. Thus malaria patients receiving treatment may continue to carry infectious gametocytes until they eventually disappear from the host’s circulation. Blocking P. falciparum transmission is crucial for malaria elimination. Antimalarials additionally or solely targeting gametocytes, particularly the mature stages, are urgently required.

It has recently been appreciated that the complex cell biology and the sexual dimorphism of P. falciparum gametocytes requires further attention, particularly when assessing the potential impact of antimalarial interventions in clinical trials. In vitro mature male gametocytes are more drug sensitive than mature female gametocytes, yet females comprise ~80% of the gametocyte population in the human host. New tools are necessary to incorporate read-outs for both male and female gametocytes to accurately assess the impact on gametocytes of antimalarial interventions in malaria patients.

FUNDING

Andrea was awarded a PhD scholarship from the Medical Research Council (UK) and her previous postdoctoral research was supported by MMV and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. Her current research is funded by Wellcome.

Name Department Institution Country
Professor Sir Nicholas J White FRS Tropical Medicine Oxford University, Bangkok Thailand
Dr Kesinee Chotivanich Tropical Medicine Oxford University, Bangkok Thailand
Professor Adrianus Dondorp Tropical Medicine Oxford University, Bangkok Thailand
Professor Jacob Baum Imperial College London United Kingdom
Dr Michael Delves Imperial College London United Kingdom
Dr Markus Winterberg Tropical Medicine Oxford University, Bangkok Thailand
Robinson MT, Jatupornpimol N, Sachaphimukh S, Lonnkvist M, Ruecker A, Cheah PY. 2017. The First Pint of Science Festival in Asia SCIENCE COMMUNICATION, 39 (6), pp. 810-820. | Show Abstract | Read more

© 2017, © The Author(s) 2017. The Pint of Science Festival is the largest annual international science festival. So far the event has been held simultaneously in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia but not in Asia. Pint of Science Thailand was held for the first time this year, in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. This article briefly discusses some of the successes, challenges, and lessons learnt associated with running the first Pint of Science event in Asia, a culture very different to the Western Hemisphere cities that have currently hosted Pint of Science events.

Vanaerschot M, Lucantoni L, Li T, Combrinck JM, Ruecker A, Kumar TRS, Rubiano K, Ferreira PE, Siciliano G, Gulati S et al. 2017. Hexahydroquinolines are antimalarial candidates with potent blood-stage and transmission-blocking activity. Nat Microbiol, 2 (10), pp. 1403-1414. | Show Abstract | Read more

Antimalarial compounds with dual therapeutic and transmission-blocking activity are desired as high-value partners for combination therapies. Here, we report the identification and characterization of hexahydroquinolines (HHQs) that show low nanomolar potency against both pathogenic and transmissible intra-erythrocytic forms of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. This activity translates into potent transmission-blocking potential, as shown by in vitro male gamete formation assays and reduced oocyst infection and prevalence in Anopheles mosquitoes. In vivo studies illustrated the ability of lead HHQs to suppress Plasmodium berghei blood-stage parasite proliferation. Resistance selection studies, confirmed by CRISPR-Cas9-based gene editing, identified the digestive vacuole membrane-spanning transporter PfMDR1 (P. falciparum multidrug resistance gene-1) as a determinant of parasite resistance to HHQs. Haemoglobin and haem fractionation assays suggest a mode of action that results in reduced haemozoin levels and might involve inhibition of host haemoglobin uptake into intra-erythrocytic parasites. Furthermore, parasites resistant to HHQs displayed increased susceptibility to several first-line antimalarial drugs, including lumefantrine, confirming that HHQs have a different mode of action to other antimalarials drugs for which PfMDR1 is known to confer resistance. This work evokes therapeutic strategies that combine opposing selective pressures on this parasite transporter as an approach to countering the emergence and transmission of multidrug-resistant P. falciparum malaria.

O'Neill PM, Amewu RK, Charman SA, Sabbani S, Gnädig NF, Straimer J, Fidock DA, Shore ER, Roberts NL, Wong MH-L et al. 2017. A tetraoxane-based antimalarial drug candidate that overcomes PfK13-C580Y dependent artemisinin resistance. Nat Commun, 8 pp. 15159. | Show Abstract | Read more

K13 gene mutations are a primary marker of artemisinin resistance in Plasmodium falciparum malaria that threatens the long-term clinical utility of artemisinin-based combination therapies, the cornerstone of modern day malaria treatment. Here we describe a multinational drug discovery programme that has delivered a synthetic tetraoxane-based molecule, E209, which meets key requirements of the Medicines for Malaria Venture drug candidate profiles. E209 has potent nanomolar inhibitory activity against multiple strains of P. falciparum and P. vivax in vitro, is efficacious against P. falciparum in in vivo rodent models, produces parasite reduction ratios equivalent to dihydroartemisinin and has pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic characteristics compatible with a single-dose cure. In vitro studies with transgenic parasites expressing variant forms of K13 show no cross-resistance with the C580Y mutation, the primary variant observed in Southeast Asia. E209 is a superior next generation endoperoxide with combined pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic features that overcome the liabilities of artemisinin derivatives.

Miguel-Blanco C, Molina I, Bardera AI, Díaz B, de Las Heras L, Lozano S, González C, Rodrigues J, Delves MJ, Ruecker A et al. 2017. Hundreds of dual-stage antimalarial molecules discovered by a functional gametocyte screen. Nat Commun, 8 pp. 15160. | Show Abstract | Read more

Plasmodium falciparum stage V gametocytes are responsible for parasite transmission, and drugs targeting this stage are needed to support malaria elimination. We here screen the Tres Cantos Antimalarial Set (TCAMS) using the previously developed P. falciparum female gametocyte activation assay (Pf FGAA), which assesses stage V female gametocyte viability and functionality using Pfs25 expression. We identify over 400 compounds with activities <2 μM, chemically classified into 57 clusters and 33 singletons. Up to 68% of the hits are chemotypes described for the first time as late-stage gametocyte-targeting molecules. In addition, the biological profile of 90 compounds representing the chemical diversity is assessed. We confirm in vitro transmission-blocking activity of four of the six selected molecules belonging to three distinct scaffold clusters. Overall, this TCAMS gametocyte screen provides 276 promising antimalarial molecules with dual asexual/sexual activity, representing starting points for target identification and candidate selection.

Paquet T, Le Manach C, Cabrera DG, Younis Y, Henrich PP, Abraham TS, Lee MCS, Basak R, Ghidelli-Disse S, Lafuente-Monasterio MJ et al. 2017. Antimalarial efficacy of MMV390048, an inhibitor of Plasmodium phosphatidylinositol 4-kinase. Sci Transl Med, 9 (387), pp. eaad9735-eaad9735. | Show Abstract | Read more

As part of the global effort toward malaria eradication, phenotypic whole-cell screening revealed the 2-aminopyridine class of small molecules as a good starting point to develop new antimalarial drugs. Stemming from this series, we found that the derivative, MMV390048, lacked cross-resistance with current drugs used to treat malaria. This compound was efficacious against all Plasmodium life cycle stages, apart from late hypnozoites in the liver. Efficacy was shown in the humanized Plasmodium falciparum mouse model, and modest reductions in mouse-to-mouse transmission were achieved in the Plasmodium berghei mouse model. Experiments in monkeys revealed the ability of MMV390048 to be used for full chemoprotection. Although MMV390048 was not able to eliminate liver hypnozoites, it delayed relapse in a Plasmodium cynomolgi monkey model. Both genomic and chemoproteomic studies identified a kinase of the Plasmodium parasite, phosphatidylinositol 4-kinase, as the molecular target of MMV390048. The ability of MMV390048 to block all life cycle stages of the malaria parasite suggests that this compound should be further developed and may contribute to malaria control and eradication as part of a single-dose combination treatment.

Williamson AE, Ylioja PM, Robertson MN, Antonova-Koch Y, Avery V, Baell JB, Batchu H, Batra S, Burrows JN, Bhattacharyya S et al. 2016. Open Source Drug Discovery: Highly Potent Antimalarial Compounds Derived from the Tres Cantos Arylpyrroles. ACS Cent Sci, 2 (10), pp. 687-701. | Show Abstract | Read more

The development of new antimalarial compounds remains a pivotal part of the strategy for malaria elimination. Recent large-scale phenotypic screens have provided a wealth of potential starting points for hit-to-lead campaigns. One such public set is explored, employing an open source research mechanism in which all data and ideas were shared in real time, anyone was able to participate, and patents were not sought. One chemical subseries was found to exhibit oral activity but contained a labile ester that could not be replaced without loss of activity, and the original hit exhibited remarkable sensitivity to minor structural change. A second subseries displayed high potency, including activity within gametocyte and liver stage assays, but at the cost of low solubility. As an open source research project, unexplored avenues are clearly identified and may be explored further by the community; new findings may be cumulatively added to the present work.

Le Bihan A, de Kanter R, Angulo-Barturen I, Binkert C, Boss C, Brun R, Brunner R, Buchmann S, Burrows J, Dechering KJ et al. 2016. Characterization of Novel Antimalarial Compound ACT-451840: Preclinical Assessment of Activity and Dose-Efficacy Modeling. PLoS Med, 13 (10), pp. e1002138. | Show Abstract | Read more

BACKGROUND: Artemisinin resistance observed in Southeast Asia threatens the continued use of artemisinin-based combination therapy in endemic countries. Additionally, the diversity of chemical mode of action in the global portfolio of marketed antimalarials is extremely limited. Addressing the urgent need for the development of new antimalarials, a chemical class of potent antimalarial compounds with a novel mode of action was recently identified. Herein, the preclinical characterization of one of these compounds, ACT-451840, conducted in partnership with academic and industrial groups is presented. METHOD AND FINDINGS: The properties of ACT-451840 are described, including its spectrum of activities against multiple life cycle stages of the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum (asexual and sexual) and Plasmodium vivax (asexual) as well as oral in vivo efficacies in two murine malaria models that permit infection with the human and the rodent parasites P. falciparum and Plasmodium berghei, respectively. In vitro, ACT-451840 showed a 50% inhibition concentration of 0.4 nM (standard deviation [SD]: ± 0.0 nM) against the drug-sensitive P. falciparum NF54 strain. The 90% effective doses in the in vivo efficacy models were 3.7 mg/kg against P. falciparum (95% confidence interval: 3.3-4.9 mg/kg) and 13 mg/kg against P. berghei (95% confidence interval: 11-16 mg/kg). ACT-451840 potently prevented male gamete formation from the gametocyte stage with a 50% inhibition concentration of 5.89 nM (SD: ± 1.80 nM) and dose-dependently blocked oocyst development in the mosquito with a 50% inhibitory concentration of 30 nM (range: 23-39). The compound's preclinical safety profile is presented and is in line with the published results of the first-in-man study in healthy male participants, in whom ACT-451840 was well tolerated. Pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamic (PK/PD) modeling was applied using efficacy in the murine models (defined either as antimalarial activity or as survival) in relation to area under the concentration versus time curve (AUC), maximum observed plasma concentration (Cmax), and time above a threshold concentration. The determination of the dose-efficacy relationship of ACT-451840 under curative conditions in rodent malaria models allowed prediction of the human efficacious exposure. CONCLUSION: The dual activity of ACT-451840 against asexual and sexual stages of P. falciparum and the activity on P. vivax have the potential to meet the specific profile of a target compound that could replace the fast-acting artemisinin component and harbor additional gametocytocidal activity and, thereby, transmission-blocking properties. The fast parasite reduction ratio (PRR) and gametocytocidal effect of ACT-451840 were recently also confirmed in a clinical proof-of-concept (POC) study.

Delves MJ, Straschil U, Ruecker A, Miguel-Blanco C, Marques S, Dufour AC, Baum J, Sinden RE. 2016. Routine in vitro culture of P. falciparum gametocytes to evaluate novel transmission-blocking interventions. Nat Protoc, 11 (9), pp. 1668-1680. | Show Abstract | Read more

The prevention of parasite transmission from the human host to the mosquito has been recognized as a vital tool for malaria eradication campaigns. However, transmission-blocking antimalarial drug and/or vaccine discovery and development is currently hampered by the expense and difficulty of producing mature Plasmodium falciparum gametocytes in vitro-the parasite stage responsible for mosquito infection. Current protocols for P. falciparum gametocyte culture usually require complex parasite synchronization and addition of stimulating and/or inhibitory factors, and they may not have demonstrated the essential property of mosquito infectivity. This protocol details all the steps required for reliable P. falciparum gametocyte production and highlights common factors that influence culture success. The protocol can be completed in 15 d, and particular emphasis is placed upon operating a gametocyte culture facility on a continuous cycle. In addition, we show how functionally viable gametocytes can be used to evaluate transmission-blocking drugs both in a field setting and at high throughput (HTP) for drug discovery.

Van Voorhis WC, Adams JH, Adelfio R, Ahyong V, Akabas MH, Alano P, Alday A, Alemán Resto Y, Alsibaee A, Alzualde A et al. 2016. Open Source Drug Discovery with the Malaria Box Compound Collection for Neglected Diseases and Beyond. PLoS Pathog, 12 (7), pp. e1005763. | Show Abstract | Read more

A major cause of the paucity of new starting points for drug discovery is the lack of interaction between academia and industry. Much of the global resource in biology is present in universities, whereas the focus of medicinal chemistry is still largely within industry. Open source drug discovery, with sharing of information, is clearly a first step towards overcoming this gap. But the interface could especially be bridged through a scale-up of open sharing of physical compounds, which would accelerate the finding of new starting points for drug discovery. The Medicines for Malaria Venture Malaria Box is a collection of over 400 compounds representing families of structures identified in phenotypic screens of pharmaceutical and academic libraries against the Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasite. The set has now been distributed to almost 200 research groups globally in the last two years, with the only stipulation that information from the screens is deposited in the public domain. This paper reports for the first time on 236 screens that have been carried out against the Malaria Box and compares these results with 55 assays that were previously published, in a format that allows a meta-analysis of the combined dataset. The combined biochemical and cellular assays presented here suggest mechanisms of action for 135 (34%) of the compounds active in killing multiple life-cycle stages of the malaria parasite, including asexual blood, liver, gametocyte, gametes and insect ookinete stages. In addition, many compounds demonstrated activity against other pathogens, showing hits in assays with 16 protozoa, 7 helminths, 9 bacterial and mycobacterial species, the dengue fever mosquito vector, and the NCI60 human cancer cell line panel of 60 human tumor cell lines. Toxicological, pharmacokinetic and metabolic properties were collected on all the compounds, assisting in the selection of the most promising candidates for murine proof-of-concept experiments and medicinal chemistry programs. The data for all of these assays are presented and analyzed to show how outstanding leads for many indications can be selected. These results reveal the immense potential for translating the dispersed expertise in biological assays involving human pathogens into drug discovery starting points, by providing open access to new families of molecules, and emphasize how a small additional investment made to help acquire and distribute compounds, and sharing the data, can catalyze drug discovery for dozens of different indications. Another lesson is that when multiple screens from different groups are run on the same library, results can be integrated quickly to select the most valuable starting points for subsequent medicinal chemistry efforts.

Baragaña B, Hallyburton I, Lee MCS, Norcross NR, Grimaldi R, Otto TD, Proto WR, Blagborough AM, Meister S, Wirjanata G et al. 2016. Corrigendum: A novel multiple-stage antimalarial agent that inhibits protein synthesis. Nature, 537 (7618), pp. 122. | Read more

Phillips MA, Lotharius J, Marsh K, White J, Dayan A, White KL, Njoroge JW, El Mazouni F, Lao Y, Kokkonda S et al. 2015. A long-duration dihydroorotate dehydrogenase inhibitor (DSM265) for prevention and treatment of malaria. Sci Transl Med, 7 (296), pp. 296ra111. | Show Abstract | Read more

Malaria is one of the most significant causes of childhood mortality, but disease control efforts are threatened by resistance of the Plasmodium parasite to current therapies. Continued progress in combating malaria requires development of new, easy to administer drug combinations with broad-ranging activity against all manifestations of the disease. DSM265, a triazolopyrimidine-based inhibitor of the pyrimidine biosynthetic enzyme dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (DHODH), is the first DHODH inhibitor to reach clinical development for treatment of malaria. We describe studies profiling the biological activity, pharmacological and pharmacokinetic properties, and safety of DSM265, which supported its advancement to human trials. DSM265 is highly selective toward DHODH of the malaria parasite Plasmodium, efficacious against both blood and liver stages of P. falciparum, and active against drug-resistant parasite isolates. Favorable pharmacokinetic properties of DSM265 are predicted to provide therapeutic concentrations for more than 8 days after a single oral dose in the range of 200 to 400 mg. DSM265 was well tolerated in repeat-dose and cardiovascular safety studies in mice and dogs, was not mutagenic, and was inactive against panels of human enzymes/receptors. The excellent safety profile, blood- and liver-stage activity, and predicted long half-life in humans position DSM265 as a new potential drug combination partner for either single-dose treatment or once-weekly chemoprevention. DSM265 has advantages over current treatment options that are dosed daily or are inactive against the parasite liver stage.

Baragaña B, Hallyburton I, Lee MCS, Norcross NR, Grimaldi R, Otto TD, Proto WR, Blagborough AM, Meister S, Wirjanata G et al. 2015. A novel multiple-stage antimalarial agent that inhibits protein synthesis. Nature, 522 (7556), pp. 315-320. | Show Abstract | Read more

There is an urgent need for new drugs to treat malaria, with broad therapeutic potential and novel modes of action, to widen the scope of treatment and to overcome emerging drug resistance. Here we describe the discovery of DDD107498, a compound with a potent and novel spectrum of antimalarial activity against multiple life-cycle stages of the Plasmodium parasite, with good pharmacokinetic properties and an acceptable safety profile. DDD107498 demonstrates potential to address a variety of clinical needs, including single-dose treatment, transmission blocking and chemoprotection. DDD107498 was developed from a screening programme against blood-stage malaria parasites; its molecular target has been identified as translation elongation factor 2 (eEF2), which is responsible for the GTP-dependent translocation of the ribosome along messenger RNA, and is essential for protein synthesis. This discovery of eEF2 as a viable antimalarial drug target opens up new possibilities for drug discovery.

Miguel-Blanco C, Lelièvre J, Delves MJ, Bardera AI, Presa JL, López-Barragán MJ, Ruecker A, Marques S, Sinden RE, Herreros E. 2015. Imaging-based high-throughput screening assay to identify new molecules with transmission-blocking potential against Plasmodium falciparum female gamete formation. Antimicrob Agents Chemother, 59 (6), pp. 3298-3305. | Show Abstract | Read more

In response to a call for the global eradication of malaria, drug discovery has recently been extended to identify compounds that prevent the onward transmission of the parasite, which is mediated by Plasmodium falciparum stage V gametocytes. Lately, metabolic activity has been used in vitro as a surrogate for gametocyte viability; however, as gametocytes remain relatively quiescent at this stage, their ability to undergo onward development (gamete formation) may be a better measure of their functional viability. During gamete formation, female gametocytes undergo profound morphological changes and express translationally repressed mRNA. By assessing female gamete cell surface expression of one such repressed protein, Pfs25, as the readout for female gametocyte functional viability, we developed an imaging-based high-throughput screening (HTS) assay to identify transmission-blocking compounds. This assay, designated the P. falciparum female gametocyte activation assay (FGAA), was scaled up to a high-throughput format (Z' factor, 0.7 ± 0.1) and subsequently validated using a selection of 50 known antimalarials from diverse chemical families. Only a few of these agents showed submicromolar 50% inhibitory concentrations in the assay: thiostrepton, methylene blue, and some endoperoxides. To determine the best conditions for HTS, a robustness test was performed with a selection of the GlaxoSmithKline Tres Cantos Antimalarial Set (TCAMS) and the final screening conditions for this library were determined to be a 2 μM concentration and 48 h of incubation with gametocytes. The P. falciparum FGAA has been proven to be a robust HTS assay faithful to Plasmodium transmission-stage cell biology, and it is an innovative useful tool for antimalarial drug discovery which aims to identify new molecules with transmission-blocking potential.

White NJ, Ashley EA, Recht J, Delves MJ, Ruecker A, Smithuis FM, Eziefula AC, Bousema T, Drakeley C, Chotivanich K et al. 2014. Assessment of therapeutic responses to gametocytocidal drugs in Plasmodium falciparum malaria. Malar J, 13 (1), pp. 483. | Show Abstract | Read more

Indirect clinical measures assessing anti-malarial drug transmission-blocking activity in falciparum malaria include measurement of the duration of gametocytaemia, the rate of gametocyte clearance or the area under the gametocytaemia-time curve (AUC). These may provide useful comparative information, but they underestimate dose-response relationships for transmission-blocking activity. Following 8-aminoquinoline administration P. falciparum gametocytes are sterilized within hours, whereas clearance from blood takes days. Gametocytaemia AUC and clearance times are determined predominantly by the more numerous female gametocytes, which are generally less drug sensitive than the minority male gametocytes, whereas transmission-blocking activity and thus infectivity is determined by the more sensitive male forms. In choosing doses of transmission-blocking drugs there is no substitute yet for mosquito-feeding studies.

Malmquist NA, Sundriyal S, Caron J, Chen P, Witkowski B, Menard D, Suwanarusk R, Renia L, Nosten F, Jiménez-Díaz MB et al. 2015. Histone methyltransferase inhibitors are orally bioavailable, fast-acting molecules with activity against different species causing malaria in humans. Antimicrob Agents Chemother, 59 (2), pp. 950-959. | Show Abstract | Read more

Current antimalarials are under continuous threat due to the relentless development of drug resistance by malaria parasites. We previously reported promising in vitro parasite-killing activity with the histone methyltransferase inhibitor BIX-01294 and its analogue TM2-115. Here, we further characterize these diaminoquinazolines for in vitro and in vivo efficacy and pharmacokinetic properties to prioritize and direct compound development. BIX-01294 and TM2-115 displayed potent in vitro activity, with 50% inhibitory concentrations (IC50s) of <50 nM against drug-sensitive laboratory strains and multidrug-resistant field isolates, including artemisinin-refractory Plasmodium falciparum isolates. Activities against ex vivo clinical isolates of both P. falciparum and Plasmodium vivax were similar, with potencies of 300 to 400 nM. Sexual-stage gametocyte inhibition occurs at micromolar levels; however, mature gametocyte progression to gamete formation is inhibited at submicromolar concentrations. Parasite reduction ratio analysis confirms a high asexual-stage rate of killing. Both compounds examined displayed oral efficacy in in vivo mouse models of Plasmodium berghei and P. falciparum infection. The discovery of a rapid and broadly acting antimalarial compound class targeting blood stage infection, including transmission stage parasites, and effective against multiple malaria-causing species reveals the diaminoquinazoline scaffold to be a very promising lead for development into greatly needed novel therapies to control malaria.

Ruecker A, Mathias DK, Straschil U, Churcher TS, Dinglasan RR, Leroy D, Sinden RE, Delves MJ. 2014. A male and female gametocyte functional viability assay to identify biologically relevant malaria transmission-blocking drugs. Antimicrob Agents Chemother, 58 (12), pp. 7292-7302. | Show Abstract | Read more

Malaria elimination will require interventions that prevent parasite transmission from the human host to the mosquito. Experimentally, this is usually determined by the expensive and laborious Plasmodium falciparum standard membrane feeding assay (PfSMFA), which has limited utility for high-throughput drug screening. In response, we developed the P. falciparum dual gamete formation assay (PfDGFA), which faithfully simulates the initial stages of the PfSMFA in vitro. It utilizes a dual readout that individually and simultaneously reports on the functional viability of male and female mature stage V gametocytes. To validate, we screen the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) Malaria Box library with the PfDGFA. Unique to this assay, we find compounds that target male gametocytes only and also compounds with reversible and irreversible activity. Most importantly, we show that compound activity in the PfDGFA accurately predicts activity in PfSMFAs, which validates and supports its adoption into the transmission-stage screening pipeline.

Vaidya AB, Morrisey JM, Zhang Z, Das S, Daly TM, Otto TD, Spillman NJ, Wyvratt M, Siegl P, Marfurt J et al. 2014. Pyrazoleamide compounds are potent antimalarials that target Na+ homeostasis in intraerythrocytic Plasmodium falciparum. Nat Commun, 5 pp. 5521. | Show Abstract | Read more

The quest for new antimalarial drugs, especially those with novel modes of action, is essential in the face of emerging drug-resistant parasites. Here we describe a new chemical class of molecules, pyrazoleamides, with potent activity against human malaria parasites and showing remarkably rapid parasite clearance in an in vivo model. Investigations involving pyrazoleamide-resistant parasites, whole-genome sequencing and gene transfers reveal that mutations in two proteins, a calcium-dependent protein kinase (PfCDPK5) and a P-type cation-ATPase (PfATP4), are necessary to impart full resistance to these compounds. A pyrazoleamide compound causes a rapid disruption of Na(+) regulation in blood-stage Plasmodium falciparum parasites. Similar effect on Na(+) homeostasis was recently reported for spiroindolones, which are antimalarials of a chemical class quite distinct from pyrazoleamides. Our results reveal that disruption of Na(+) homeostasis in malaria parasites is a promising mode of antimalarial action mediated by at least two distinct chemical classes.

Delves MJ, Ruecker A, Straschil U, Lelièvre J, Marques S, López-Barragán MJ, Herreros E, Sinden RE. 2013. Male and female Plasmodium falciparum mature gametocytes show different responses to antimalarial drugs. Antimicrob Agents Chemother, 57 (7), pp. 3268-3274. | Show Abstract | Read more

It is the mature gametocytes of Plasmodium that are solely responsible for parasite transmission from the mammalian host to the mosquito. They are therefore a logical target for transmission-blocking antimalarial interventions, which aim to break the cycle of reinfection and reduce the prevalence of malaria cases. Gametocytes, however, are not a homogeneous cell population. They are sexually dimorphic, and both males and females are required for parasite transmission. Using two bioassays, we explored the effects of 20 antimalarials on the functional viability of both male and female mature gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum. We show that mature male gametocytes (as reported by their ability to produce male gametes, i.e., to exflagellate) are sensitive to antifolates, some endoperoxides, methylene blue, and thiostrepton, with submicromolar 50% inhibitory concentrations (IC50s), whereas female gametocytes (as reported by their ability to activate and form gametes expressing the marker Pfs25) are much less sensitive to antimalarial intervention, with only methylene blue and thiostrepton showing any significant activity. These findings show firstly that the antimalarial responses of male and female gametocytes differ and secondly that the mature male gametocyte should be considered a more vulnerable target than the female gametocyte for transmission-blocking drugs. Given the female-biased sex ratio of Plasmodium falciparum (∼3 to 5 females:1 male), current gametocyte assays without a sex-specific readout are unlikely to identify male-targeted compounds and prioritize them for further development. Both assays reported here are being scaled up to at least medium throughput and will permit identification of key transmission-blocking molecules that have been overlooked by other screening campaigns.

Ruecker A, Shea M, Hackett F, Suarez C, Hirst EMA, Milutinovic K, Withers-Martinez C, Blackman MJ. 2012. Proteolytic activation of the essential parasitophorous vacuole cysteine protease SERA6 accompanies malaria parasite egress from its host erythrocyte. J Biol Chem, 287 (45), pp. 37949-37963. | Show Abstract | Read more

The malaria parasite replicates within an intraerythrocytic parasitophorous vacuole (PV). The PV and host cell membranes eventually rupture, releasing merozoites in a process called egress. Certain inhibitors of serine and cysteine proteases block egress, indicating a crucial role for proteases. The Plasmodium falciparum genome encodes nine serine-repeat antigens (SERAs), each of which contains a central domain homologous to the papain-like (clan CA, family C1) protease family. SERA5 and SERA6 are indispensable in blood-stage parasites, but the function of neither is known. Here we show that SERA6 localizes to the PV where it is precisely cleaved just prior to egress by an essential serine protease called PfSUB1. Mutations that replace the predicted catalytic Cys of SERA6, or that block SERA6 processing by PfSUB1, could not be stably introduced into the parasite genomic sera6 locus, indicating that SERA6 is an essential enzyme and that processing is important for its function. We demonstrate that cleavage of SERA6 by PfSUB1 converts it to an active cysteine protease. Our observations reveal a proteolytic activation step in the malarial PV that may be required for release of the parasite from its host erythrocyte.

Miguel-Blanco C, Molina I, Bardera AI, Díaz B, de Las Heras L, Lozano S, González C, Rodrigues J, Delves MJ, Ruecker A et al. 2017. Hundreds of dual-stage antimalarial molecules discovered by a functional gametocyte screen. Nat Commun, 8 pp. 15160. | Show Abstract | Read more

Plasmodium falciparum stage V gametocytes are responsible for parasite transmission, and drugs targeting this stage are needed to support malaria elimination. We here screen the Tres Cantos Antimalarial Set (TCAMS) using the previously developed P. falciparum female gametocyte activation assay (Pf FGAA), which assesses stage V female gametocyte viability and functionality using Pfs25 expression. We identify over 400 compounds with activities <2 μM, chemically classified into 57 clusters and 33 singletons. Up to 68% of the hits are chemotypes described for the first time as late-stage gametocyte-targeting molecules. In addition, the biological profile of 90 compounds representing the chemical diversity is assessed. We confirm in vitro transmission-blocking activity of four of the six selected molecules belonging to three distinct scaffold clusters. Overall, this TCAMS gametocyte screen provides 276 promising antimalarial molecules with dual asexual/sexual activity, representing starting points for target identification and candidate selection.

Paquet T, Le Manach C, Cabrera DG, Younis Y, Henrich PP, Abraham TS, Lee MCS, Basak R, Ghidelli-Disse S, Lafuente-Monasterio MJ et al. 2017. Antimalarial efficacy of MMV390048, an inhibitor of Plasmodium phosphatidylinositol 4-kinase. Sci Transl Med, 9 (387), pp. eaad9735-eaad9735. | Show Abstract | Read more

As part of the global effort toward malaria eradication, phenotypic whole-cell screening revealed the 2-aminopyridine class of small molecules as a good starting point to develop new antimalarial drugs. Stemming from this series, we found that the derivative, MMV390048, lacked cross-resistance with current drugs used to treat malaria. This compound was efficacious against all Plasmodium life cycle stages, apart from late hypnozoites in the liver. Efficacy was shown in the humanized Plasmodium falciparum mouse model, and modest reductions in mouse-to-mouse transmission were achieved in the Plasmodium berghei mouse model. Experiments in monkeys revealed the ability of MMV390048 to be used for full chemoprotection. Although MMV390048 was not able to eliminate liver hypnozoites, it delayed relapse in a Plasmodium cynomolgi monkey model. Both genomic and chemoproteomic studies identified a kinase of the Plasmodium parasite, phosphatidylinositol 4-kinase, as the molecular target of MMV390048. The ability of MMV390048 to block all life cycle stages of the malaria parasite suggests that this compound should be further developed and may contribute to malaria control and eradication as part of a single-dose combination treatment.

Delves MJ, Straschil U, Ruecker A, Miguel-Blanco C, Marques S, Dufour AC, Baum J, Sinden RE. 2016. Routine in vitro culture of P. falciparum gametocytes to evaluate novel transmission-blocking interventions. Nat Protoc, 11 (9), pp. 1668-1680. | Show Abstract | Read more

The prevention of parasite transmission from the human host to the mosquito has been recognized as a vital tool for malaria eradication campaigns. However, transmission-blocking antimalarial drug and/or vaccine discovery and development is currently hampered by the expense and difficulty of producing mature Plasmodium falciparum gametocytes in vitro-the parasite stage responsible for mosquito infection. Current protocols for P. falciparum gametocyte culture usually require complex parasite synchronization and addition of stimulating and/or inhibitory factors, and they may not have demonstrated the essential property of mosquito infectivity. This protocol details all the steps required for reliable P. falciparum gametocyte production and highlights common factors that influence culture success. The protocol can be completed in 15 d, and particular emphasis is placed upon operating a gametocyte culture facility on a continuous cycle. In addition, we show how functionally viable gametocytes can be used to evaluate transmission-blocking drugs both in a field setting and at high throughput (HTP) for drug discovery.

Van Voorhis WC, Adams JH, Adelfio R, Ahyong V, Akabas MH, Alano P, Alday A, Alemán Resto Y, Alsibaee A, Alzualde A et al. 2016. Open Source Drug Discovery with the Malaria Box Compound Collection for Neglected Diseases and Beyond. PLoS Pathog, 12 (7), pp. e1005763. | Show Abstract | Read more

A major cause of the paucity of new starting points for drug discovery is the lack of interaction between academia and industry. Much of the global resource in biology is present in universities, whereas the focus of medicinal chemistry is still largely within industry. Open source drug discovery, with sharing of information, is clearly a first step towards overcoming this gap. But the interface could especially be bridged through a scale-up of open sharing of physical compounds, which would accelerate the finding of new starting points for drug discovery. The Medicines for Malaria Venture Malaria Box is a collection of over 400 compounds representing families of structures identified in phenotypic screens of pharmaceutical and academic libraries against the Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasite. The set has now been distributed to almost 200 research groups globally in the last two years, with the only stipulation that information from the screens is deposited in the public domain. This paper reports for the first time on 236 screens that have been carried out against the Malaria Box and compares these results with 55 assays that were previously published, in a format that allows a meta-analysis of the combined dataset. The combined biochemical and cellular assays presented here suggest mechanisms of action for 135 (34%) of the compounds active in killing multiple life-cycle stages of the malaria parasite, including asexual blood, liver, gametocyte, gametes and insect ookinete stages. In addition, many compounds demonstrated activity against other pathogens, showing hits in assays with 16 protozoa, 7 helminths, 9 bacterial and mycobacterial species, the dengue fever mosquito vector, and the NCI60 human cancer cell line panel of 60 human tumor cell lines. Toxicological, pharmacokinetic and metabolic properties were collected on all the compounds, assisting in the selection of the most promising candidates for murine proof-of-concept experiments and medicinal chemistry programs. The data for all of these assays are presented and analyzed to show how outstanding leads for many indications can be selected. These results reveal the immense potential for translating the dispersed expertise in biological assays involving human pathogens into drug discovery starting points, by providing open access to new families of molecules, and emphasize how a small additional investment made to help acquire and distribute compounds, and sharing the data, can catalyze drug discovery for dozens of different indications. Another lesson is that when multiple screens from different groups are run on the same library, results can be integrated quickly to select the most valuable starting points for subsequent medicinal chemistry efforts.

Phillips MA, Lotharius J, Marsh K, White J, Dayan A, White KL, Njoroge JW, El Mazouni F, Lao Y, Kokkonda S et al. 2015. A long-duration dihydroorotate dehydrogenase inhibitor (DSM265) for prevention and treatment of malaria. Sci Transl Med, 7 (296), pp. 296ra111. | Show Abstract | Read more

Malaria is one of the most significant causes of childhood mortality, but disease control efforts are threatened by resistance of the Plasmodium parasite to current therapies. Continued progress in combating malaria requires development of new, easy to administer drug combinations with broad-ranging activity against all manifestations of the disease. DSM265, a triazolopyrimidine-based inhibitor of the pyrimidine biosynthetic enzyme dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (DHODH), is the first DHODH inhibitor to reach clinical development for treatment of malaria. We describe studies profiling the biological activity, pharmacological and pharmacokinetic properties, and safety of DSM265, which supported its advancement to human trials. DSM265 is highly selective toward DHODH of the malaria parasite Plasmodium, efficacious against both blood and liver stages of P. falciparum, and active against drug-resistant parasite isolates. Favorable pharmacokinetic properties of DSM265 are predicted to provide therapeutic concentrations for more than 8 days after a single oral dose in the range of 200 to 400 mg. DSM265 was well tolerated in repeat-dose and cardiovascular safety studies in mice and dogs, was not mutagenic, and was inactive against panels of human enzymes/receptors. The excellent safety profile, blood- and liver-stage activity, and predicted long half-life in humans position DSM265 as a new potential drug combination partner for either single-dose treatment or once-weekly chemoprevention. DSM265 has advantages over current treatment options that are dosed daily or are inactive against the parasite liver stage.

Baragaña B, Hallyburton I, Lee MCS, Norcross NR, Grimaldi R, Otto TD, Proto WR, Blagborough AM, Meister S, Wirjanata G et al. 2015. A novel multiple-stage antimalarial agent that inhibits protein synthesis. Nature, 522 (7556), pp. 315-320. | Show Abstract | Read more

There is an urgent need for new drugs to treat malaria, with broad therapeutic potential and novel modes of action, to widen the scope of treatment and to overcome emerging drug resistance. Here we describe the discovery of DDD107498, a compound with a potent and novel spectrum of antimalarial activity against multiple life-cycle stages of the Plasmodium parasite, with good pharmacokinetic properties and an acceptable safety profile. DDD107498 demonstrates potential to address a variety of clinical needs, including single-dose treatment, transmission blocking and chemoprotection. DDD107498 was developed from a screening programme against blood-stage malaria parasites; its molecular target has been identified as translation elongation factor 2 (eEF2), which is responsible for the GTP-dependent translocation of the ribosome along messenger RNA, and is essential for protein synthesis. This discovery of eEF2 as a viable antimalarial drug target opens up new possibilities for drug discovery.

White NJ, Ashley EA, Recht J, Delves MJ, Ruecker A, Smithuis FM, Eziefula AC, Bousema T, Drakeley C, Chotivanich K et al. 2014. Assessment of therapeutic responses to gametocytocidal drugs in Plasmodium falciparum malaria. Malar J, 13 (1), pp. 483. | Show Abstract | Read more

Indirect clinical measures assessing anti-malarial drug transmission-blocking activity in falciparum malaria include measurement of the duration of gametocytaemia, the rate of gametocyte clearance or the area under the gametocytaemia-time curve (AUC). These may provide useful comparative information, but they underestimate dose-response relationships for transmission-blocking activity. Following 8-aminoquinoline administration P. falciparum gametocytes are sterilized within hours, whereas clearance from blood takes days. Gametocytaemia AUC and clearance times are determined predominantly by the more numerous female gametocytes, which are generally less drug sensitive than the minority male gametocytes, whereas transmission-blocking activity and thus infectivity is determined by the more sensitive male forms. In choosing doses of transmission-blocking drugs there is no substitute yet for mosquito-feeding studies.

Ruecker A, Mathias DK, Straschil U, Churcher TS, Dinglasan RR, Leroy D, Sinden RE, Delves MJ. 2014. A male and female gametocyte functional viability assay to identify biologically relevant malaria transmission-blocking drugs. Antimicrob Agents Chemother, 58 (12), pp. 7292-7302. | Show Abstract | Read more

Malaria elimination will require interventions that prevent parasite transmission from the human host to the mosquito. Experimentally, this is usually determined by the expensive and laborious Plasmodium falciparum standard membrane feeding assay (PfSMFA), which has limited utility for high-throughput drug screening. In response, we developed the P. falciparum dual gamete formation assay (PfDGFA), which faithfully simulates the initial stages of the PfSMFA in vitro. It utilizes a dual readout that individually and simultaneously reports on the functional viability of male and female mature stage V gametocytes. To validate, we screen the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) Malaria Box library with the PfDGFA. Unique to this assay, we find compounds that target male gametocytes only and also compounds with reversible and irreversible activity. Most importantly, we show that compound activity in the PfDGFA accurately predicts activity in PfSMFAs, which validates and supports its adoption into the transmission-stage screening pipeline.

Delves MJ, Ruecker A, Straschil U, Lelièvre J, Marques S, López-Barragán MJ, Herreros E, Sinden RE. 2013. Male and female Plasmodium falciparum mature gametocytes show different responses to antimalarial drugs. Antimicrob Agents Chemother, 57 (7), pp. 3268-3274. | Show Abstract | Read more

It is the mature gametocytes of Plasmodium that are solely responsible for parasite transmission from the mammalian host to the mosquito. They are therefore a logical target for transmission-blocking antimalarial interventions, which aim to break the cycle of reinfection and reduce the prevalence of malaria cases. Gametocytes, however, are not a homogeneous cell population. They are sexually dimorphic, and both males and females are required for parasite transmission. Using two bioassays, we explored the effects of 20 antimalarials on the functional viability of both male and female mature gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum. We show that mature male gametocytes (as reported by their ability to produce male gametes, i.e., to exflagellate) are sensitive to antifolates, some endoperoxides, methylene blue, and thiostrepton, with submicromolar 50% inhibitory concentrations (IC50s), whereas female gametocytes (as reported by their ability to activate and form gametes expressing the marker Pfs25) are much less sensitive to antimalarial intervention, with only methylene blue and thiostrepton showing any significant activity. These findings show firstly that the antimalarial responses of male and female gametocytes differ and secondly that the mature male gametocyte should be considered a more vulnerable target than the female gametocyte for transmission-blocking drugs. Given the female-biased sex ratio of Plasmodium falciparum (∼3 to 5 females:1 male), current gametocyte assays without a sex-specific readout are unlikely to identify male-targeted compounds and prioritize them for further development. Both assays reported here are being scaled up to at least medium throughput and will permit identification of key transmission-blocking molecules that have been overlooked by other screening campaigns.

Ruecker A, Shea M, Hackett F, Suarez C, Hirst EMA, Milutinovic K, Withers-Martinez C, Blackman MJ. 2012. Proteolytic activation of the essential parasitophorous vacuole cysteine protease SERA6 accompanies malaria parasite egress from its host erythrocyte. J Biol Chem, 287 (45), pp. 37949-37963. | Show Abstract | Read more

The malaria parasite replicates within an intraerythrocytic parasitophorous vacuole (PV). The PV and host cell membranes eventually rupture, releasing merozoites in a process called egress. Certain inhibitors of serine and cysteine proteases block egress, indicating a crucial role for proteases. The Plasmodium falciparum genome encodes nine serine-repeat antigens (SERAs), each of which contains a central domain homologous to the papain-like (clan CA, family C1) protease family. SERA5 and SERA6 are indispensable in blood-stage parasites, but the function of neither is known. Here we show that SERA6 localizes to the PV where it is precisely cleaved just prior to egress by an essential serine protease called PfSUB1. Mutations that replace the predicted catalytic Cys of SERA6, or that block SERA6 processing by PfSUB1, could not be stably introduced into the parasite genomic sera6 locus, indicating that SERA6 is an essential enzyme and that processing is important for its function. We demonstrate that cleavage of SERA6 by PfSUB1 converts it to an active cysteine protease. Our observations reveal a proteolytic activation step in the malarial PV that may be required for release of the parasite from its host erythrocyte.

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