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WRAIR investigators pioneering work on an exciting new class of antimalarial compounds

March 26, 2008 Silver Spring, MD: Artemisinins in Malaria Therapy, written by WRAIR researchers Dr. Qugui Li, Dr. Wilbur K. Milhous, and Dr. (COL) Peter J. Weina (Division of Experimental Therapeutics at the WRAIR, Silver Spring, MD) provides a fascinating overview of the historical use and recent developments in the treatment of one of the oldest and still one of the most prevalent scourges of mankind malaria.

WRAIR, initially known as the Army Medical School, was founded in 1893 by then U.S. Army Surgeon General George Sternberg. In 1900 General Sternberg sent the newly appointed U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission to Cuba headed by Major Walter Reed. Major Reed and his team became the first to confirm the theory that yellow fever was transmitted by a mosquito vector. Since this historic discovery, WRAIRs many contributions to mankind in its 100 plus year history includes the discovery of the etiology and treatment of many of mankinds leading killers.

More than half of the routine vaccines given to service members were co-developed by the military. Development of other licensed vaccines was supervised by investigators who began their careers at military research centers (e.g. yellow fever vaccine by former Army Surgeon General William Gorgas, mumps, measles, and varicella vaccines by Maurice Hilleman, and oral polio vaccine by Albert Sabin). Vaccines currently in advanced development stages include new adenovirus vaccines, and vaccines for malaria, dengue, and hepatitis E.

The history of using artemisinins for malarial like conditions dates back more than 2000 years to when it was a part of the herbal arsenal utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a treatment for malarial like conditions. Artemisinins are derived from the sweet wormwood plant Artemisia annua which not only grows in China but also just down the road from WRAIR along the Potomac River. Revival of the use of artemisinins in the era of modern medicine began in China in the 1970s with the first purified crystalline artemisinins produced in Shandon Province in 1972.

Although lead author Dr. Qigui Li received his MD and pharmacology degrees in China in the early 1980s, he did not become aware of artemisinins until the late 1980s, while a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. Dr. Li stated that the Chinese had first published their findings in the Chinese Medical Journal in 1979, but when the WHO approached Chinese scientists for samples of the plant so they could conduct their own assays they were rebuffed. In retrospect, we can appreciate that this was just after the Nixon era, Mao Tse-tung was still in power, and the Chinese were very skeptical about sharing information for fear it would be utilized by the commercial pharmaceutical companies in the West for monetary gain. Since joining the WRAIR team in 1991, Dr. Li has performed or supervised the majority of the pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics on all of the artemisinin derivatives.

In December of 2005, the World Health Organization stated, for the first time, artemisinins are the first line of therapy for most cases of malarial illnesses. Artemisinins are also being investigated as antiviral and anticancer agents.


Contact: Mike Fiedler
Walter Reed Army Institute of Research

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