Malaria remains a major disease of mankind, and resistance to existing therapeutics is rapidly emerging. Limited financial investment to develop new therapeutics requires the careful selection of well-defined targets from the causative parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. In these circumstances, protein crystallography can provide valuable structural detail to facilitate both the selection of suitable targets and the development of compounds to provide novel drug candidates. This review summarises the current involvement of crystallographic studies in anti-malarial drug development programmes. Protein crystallography is increasingly central to the exploitation of a number of potential Plasmodial targets, including the aspartic acid proteases (plasmepsins) and cysteine proteases (falcipains) involved in haem degradation within the parasite food vacuole. Lead compounds are being identified from collections previously synthesised against homologous human enzymes. Plasmodium have an unusual dependence on the glycolytic pathway relative to their human hosts, and this is reflected in subtle structural differences identified in the crystal structures of a number of parasite glycolytic enzymes including aldolase and lactate dehydrogenase. Other enzymes from a range of biosynthetic pathways have also been targeted in crystallographic studies. These include dihydrofolate reductase, the target of existing anti-folate therapeutics, and enoyl reductase from the fatty acid biosynthesis pathway which is already the target of effective bacteriocides. Crystal structures of these drug-enzyme complexes not only allow visualisation and improvement of inhibitor-protein contacts, but in the former case have also been used to probe the molecular basis of emerging antimalarial drug resistance. Crystallography is similarly proving valuable as a tool to facilitate the development of inhibitors of purine salvage, isoprenoid synthesis and utilisation, and protein processing mechanisms.
Keywords: malaria, plasmodium falciparum, crystallography, drug design, proteases, glycolytic enzymes, metabolic enzymes
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