The Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and the biotech firm Bioiberica have signed a partnership agreement to study the development of new compounds derived from heparin to combat malaria. This partnership is based on the research developed by Dr Xavier Fernández Busquets, head of the ISGlobal and IBEC Nanomalaria Unit, engaged in developing specific antimalaria therapies, and the R&D project of Bioiberica, world leader in heparin production, to seek new applications of this molecule.
When the malaria parasite enters the bloodstream, it invades the liver cells to produce thousands of merozoites (a life stage of the parasite) which re-enter the bloodstream, where they infect red blood cells and succeed in going undetected by the immunity system. “Our first step was to show that heparin can block the binding and entry of merozoites to the red blood cells. Inhibiting the entry of the parasite could also promote the generation of immune responses against it”, explained Dr Fernández Busquets this morning at the press conference, which forms part of the international Biospain meeting held in Bilbao.
Dr Fernández Busquets’ group discovered that heparin shows specific binding affinity for infected red blood cells compared to uninfected cells. “This could enable the development of heparin-based specific antimalarial therapies for infected cells” he adds. However, heparin has not progressed towards clinical applications due to its anticoagulant activity (the amounts needed for treatment could provoke internal bleeding).
This joint project between industry and two research institutes focuses on three lines of research:
- Exploring the capacity of heparin bound to nanoparticles (this binding minimises its anticoagulant activity) to play a dual role: as a targeting element of other antimalarials and as a drug in itself.
- In vitro testing of 19 compounds derived from chemically-modified heparin with low anticoagulant capacity that could promote immune responses to the parasite and facilitate its elimination.
- Studying the use of heparin as a drug against the mosquito phases of the parasite.