A few days back I saw a great program on BBC( Mosquito! in the Horizon series). This VERITAS is an attempt to share with you the main ideas of this program.
Malaria is one of the biggest killers ever. It is estimated that malaria kills thousands of children each day. This year 2 million people will die of malaria. And this is a disease which scientists claimed that they could easily eradicate. This is a story of our failure.
Till the end of the the 19th century people did not even know that mosquitoes spread malaria. In the 1890’s a doctor named Robert Ross discovered ( by dissecting mosquitoes) that the female anopheles carries the malaria parasite. He got a Nobel Prize for the discovery. The scientists thought : hey cool! we kill mosquito .. we eradicate malaria! So they invented DDT.
Even the poorest countries could afford DDT. You spray it today and it kills moqsuitoes even a year later.
Ding Dong … Round 1: Man
But the moquito fought back. They bacame resistant to DDT. And malaria came back. In 1969 WHO dumped its malaria eradication program.
Ding Dong … Round 2: Mosquito
Then the scientists thought: why kill mosquito? why not kill the malaria parasite by inventing drugs? The Quinine is a wonderful drug… a gift of nature. It is derived from the cinchonoa plant of S. America. It has been in use for several hundred years. And it is very effective.
But it has very bad side effects. You can kill yourself if you take too much of it. So the scientists decided to derive safer drugs from it.
They invented chloraquine. Very effective for some time and little side effect. But the parasite soon developed resistance. It started discovering what the chloroquine looked like and started avoiding it.
Scientists derived more drugs. But they all “looked” similar ( on a molecular level). And the parasite started avoiding these molecules too. End result : it takes the parasite a lot less time to develop resistance to a new drug than it did 30 years back. Malaria is gonna come back. And we are having this global warming too. So its gonna be everywhere.
Ding Dong … Round 3: Mosquito
But its not over. Scientists keep thinking. And the latest technique for fighting malaria comes from the politics of communist china! During the cultural revolution in china the chineese starting developing a hatred for everything western… language… music and science. They did not want to use western drugs. The politicians told the scientists: develop chineese medicine. They invented lots of crazy drugs. But then they hit something of great value: quing hau su. They had rediscoved a 2000 year old remedy.
It is got from the plant artimesia. They discovered it accidently isolating a compound from an ancient chineese tea recipie.
The isolated the molecule and made a drug. And it worked great. It cured malaria faster and without side effects. But the tragedy was that they did not reveal their findings to the world. They kept it a secret. They found this drug in 1970s and the world got to know about it only in 1980s.
Ten years wasted due to politics.
The quing hau su( or artemisinin) is a very strange molecule.
It has 2 oxygen atoms attached to each other. Scientists never thought that something of this type could be useful in medicine. But this molecule is very effective. When this molecule touches iron it explodes (the oxygen-oxygen bond breaks). And the malaria parasite is rich in iron.
So the quing hau su acts like a bomb for the malaria parasite. And the malaria parasite cannot develop resistance because it cannot recognise the molecule and not get killed.
Right now the clinical tests are in progress. In a few years time we would be armed with this new technique to fight malaria. And this drug has found uses elsewhere: Cancer treatment. Cancer cells need a lot of iron to replicate when they divide. Iron eh? Bom em with quing hau su!
Lets see what happens.
Ding Dong … Round 4: Man????
But there are 2 lessons we learn from this fight against malaria:
1) Nature knows more chemistry than us. We still need to go to the plants and forests to search for new drugs and molecules. So lets not destroy the forests. They are like the treasure troves of science. We still have a lot to learn from the books of nature. Lets not tear the books.
2) Why dont young people become scientists anymore? Why is pure science neglected so much? Why should every young doctor want to do private practice and earn money? Why should every person smart at math just want to become an engineer and write C all his life?
Science is important. As Einstein put it: “All our science compared against nature is small and insignificant. And yet it is the most precious thing we have”. Science is the key to the survival of humanity.