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The Anti-Trypanosome Drug Fexinidazole Shows Potential for Treating Visceral Leishmaniasis

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Science Translational Medicine  01 Feb 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 119, pp. 119re1
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003326

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A New Job for an Old Drug

Fever, fatigue, weight loss, and swelling of the spleen and liver are all symptoms of visceral leishmaniasis—a tropical disease that is also known as kala-azar or black fever. Caused by the protozoan parasite Leishmania donovani, which is transmitted to people through the bite of a sand fly, the disease is almost always fatal if untreated. Although several drugs exist, they are costly and not always safe, effective, or easy to administer.

To address the need for better drugs, Wyllie et al. investigated the possibility of using fexinidazole to treat visceral leishmaniasis. This antiparasitic compound, developed decades ago, is now undergoing early clinical trials as an oral therapy for African sleeping sickness, a disease that is caused by a related protozoan parasite called Trypanosoma brucei. Fexinidazole’s mode of action is thought to involve a trypanosome nitroreductase; the finding that a closely related enzyme is encoded by the leishmania genome inspired Wyllie et al. to pursue fexinidazole as a therapy for visceral leishmaniasis. They found that the compound and two of its metabolites (which rapidly form in vivo) showed activity against both developmental stages of L. donovani in vitro. The metabolites were cytotoxic, killing all the parasites within 30 hours. For unclear reasons, only the metabolites were active against L. donovani grown in macrophages (the cells in which the parasite reproduces during infection). In a mouse model of visceral leishmaniasis, a daily oral dose of fexinidazole for 5 days almost completely suppressed infection—an activity that is comparable to that of drugs currently in clinical use against this deadly tropical disease.

Visceral leishmaniasis kills more people than any other parasitic disease except malaria. The clinical trials of fexinidazole for African sleeping sickness have already shown that the drug is extremely safe. The discovery that it may also be a viable oral treatment for visceral leishmaniasis bodes well for those afflicted with this disease.

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