Malaria remains a globally prevalent infectious disease that leads to significant morbidity and mortality. While there are a number of drugs approved for its treatment, drug resistance has compromised most of them, making the development of new drugs for the treatment and prevention of malaria essential. The completion of the Plasmodium falciparum genome and a growing understanding of parasite biology are fueling the search for novel drug targets. Despite this, few targets have been chemically validated in vivo. The pyrimidine biosynthetic pathway illustrates one of the best examples of successful identification of anti-malarial drug targets. This review focuses on recent studies to exploit the fourth enzyme in the de novo pyrimidine biosynthetic pathway of P. falciparum, dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (PfDHODH), as a new target for drug discovery. Several chemical scaffolds have been identified by high throughput screening as potent inhibitors of PfDHODH and these show strong selectivity for the malarial enzyme over that from the human host. Potent activity against parasites in whole cell models with good correlation between activity on the enzyme and the parasite have also been observed for a number of the identified series. Lead optimization of a triazolopyrimidine-based series has identified an analog with prolonged plasma exposure, that is orally bioavailable, and which shows good efficacy against the in vivo mouse model of the disease. These data provide strong evidence that PfDHODH is a validated target for the identification of new antimalarial chemotherapy. The challenge remains to identify compounds with the necessary combination of potency and metabolic stability to allow identification of a clinical candidate.
Keywords: Malaria, Plasmodium, pyrimidine biosynthesis, dihydroorotate dehydrogenase, drug discovery
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