Researchers have found that a substance used in toothpaste could be developed to fight drug-resistant forms of the disease malaria.
The researchers say the finding came from a study involving a ‘robot scientist.’ They said it was programmed with Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the ability to copy human behavior and make decisions.
Scientists from Britain’s Cambridge University reported on the robot and their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.
The scientists identified the common ingredient in toothpaste as triclosan. They said it showed the ability to stop malaria infections both in the liver and in the blood.
Malaria kills around 5 million people every year. The majority of them are children in the poorest parts of Africa.
The disease can be treated with a number of drugs, but resistance to these medicines is increasing. The Reuters news agency notes this raises the risk that some malaria strains may become untreatable in the future.
Because of this, the search for new medicines was becoming increasingly urgent, says Steve Oliver. He works in Cambridge University’s biochemistry department and helped to lead the study.
The cause of malaria is a parasite called plasmodium. The disease is passed to human beings through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.*
In humans, malaria parasites work their way into the liver, where the organisms develop and reproduce. They then move into red blood cells and spread around the body, causing a rise in body temperature and possibly life-threatening conditions.
Scientists have known for some time that triclosan can stop malaria parasites’ growth in the blood. They say it is able to restrict the action of an enzyme known as enoyl reductase.
In toothpaste products, triclosan helps to prevent a build-up of plaque bacteria in the mouth.
In this latest study, however, the Cambridge researchers found that triclosan stops a different enzyme of the malaria parasite, one called DHFR.
DHFR is the target of an antimalarial drug called pyrimethamine. Malaria parasites are developing resistance to the drug, mainly in Africa.
The Cambridge team’s work showed that triclosan was able to target and act on this enzyme even in pyrimethamine-resistant parasites.
“The discovery by our robot colleague, that triclosan is effective against malaria targets, offers hope that we may be able to use it to develop a new drug,” wrote Elizabeth Bilsland, a co-leader of the study. She added that the ingredient is safe and can help to prevent the parasite from becoming more resistant.
The AI robot scientist used in the study - named Eve - was built to speed up the drug discovery process. It does this by developing theories, doing experiments, seeing the results, changing the theory, and then repeating the process.
I’m Susan Shand.
* Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had a mistake about the cause of malaria. The wording has since been corrected.
This story was reported by the Reuters news agency. Susan Shand adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
toothpaste - n. a product used for cleaning teeth
artificial intelligence – n. the ability of a machine to reproduce human behavior
liver - n. a large organ that produces bile and cleans the blood
parasite - n. an organism that lives in another creature and gets food or protection from it
plaque - n. a thin coating that forms on teeth and contains bacteria
colleague - n. a person who works with you