SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Researchers at Black Hills State University are looking at whether plants used in traditional Native American medicine could be used to help treat malaria.
Chemistry professor John Dixson and a group of students are trying to determine the active ingredient in four sages native to western South Dakota that have been found to have anti-malarial properties. The sages are related to a plant used to make artemesinin, a common malaria drug, Dixson said.
In recent years, officials have spotted an increasing number of malaria cases resistant to artemesinin in parts of Asia, but although scientists worldwide are testing new malaria drugs, there are as yet no realistic alternatives to artemesinin combination drugs, considered the most effective.
Increasing resistance to older drugs like chloroquine have made them useless in many regions. Without an effective vaccine or new mosquito insecticides, donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and public-private partnerships are investing millions into finding a potential new malaria drug.
"There are a lot of problems today with resistance," Dixson said. "You see it almost every day."
Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite, killed more than 650,000 people in 2010, according to the World Health Organization.
Dixson recruited Dennis Kyle, a University of South Florida professor who specializes in malaria research, to help the Black Hills State team grow the malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. Infected red blood cells were then treated with 12 extracts from different sages commonly found in western South Dakota. Four of the extracts were found to have anti-malarial properties.
The group is now purifying the four extracts to determine which molecules are responsible for the anti-malarial activity.
"We assumed that if the American Indians had to work this hard to find a plant and get it ready to use it that it must have some biological activity," Dixson said.
Kevin Ellis, a chemistry senior with a minor in biology, said he joined the research team because he is interested in using natural products.
"I'm more of a firm believer of holistic treatments, not necessarily synthetic, but more natural products because of my background," said Ellis, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe.
He said his ancestors knew which plants to use for various ailments but didn't understand why they worked. Now, he said, he is helping answer those questions.
"It's kind of interesting to find out because of my background, well, maybe there's this that happened, and why is it the way it is, and trying to reduplicate that and what nature made," Ellis said.
Jason Nies, a graduate student in integrative genomics, said the group's work could have implications outside the health community. It's also changing what people think about small universities like Black Hills State, a small liberal arts college in western South Dakota.
"It's destroyed the taboo that a small university can't produce stuff," he said.
AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.
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