Malaria drug may help ease asthma, Singapore researchers find

It offers option for those who suffer side effects from steroids: NUS team

Dr Eugene Ho (left) and Associate Professor Fred Wong hope to launch clinical trials in two years.
Dr Eugene Ho (left) and Associate Professor Fred Wong hope to launch clinical trials in two years. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Singapore researchers have found that a common anti-malarial drug could be used to treat adult asthma patients.

The team of nine from the National University of Singapore (NUS) believe it could be used as an alternative to steroids, which can give rise to negative long-term side effects.

"Artesunate could suppress many hallmarks of asthma, such as airway inflammation and mucus production that obstructs airways," said Dr Eugene Ho, 30, a PhD graduate from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

The herbal-based anti-inflammatory medicine is commonly used to treat malaria, but has not been used for controlling asthma.

The team's findings have been published in medical journals such as Pharmacology And Therapeutics and Metabolomics.

Dr Ho also found that artesunate could help to reduce oxidative stress, which damages molecules in the lungs.

Compared with steroids often used to treat asthma, such as dexamethasone, it is less likely to adversely affect the body's systemic circulation, he said. Side effects of prolonged steroid use include obesity, thinning of the skin and even glaucoma.

Still, artesunate might not hit the shelves for a while - so far, it has been tested only on experimental models and human cells, said Associate Professor Fred Wong, who heads the pharmacology department at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

The team is in talks with National University Hospital, and hopes to launch clinical trials in two years.

Prof Wong said: "Artesunate cannot replace steroids, the first line of defence against asthma, but it may be an option for those who get side effects from them."

Respiratory physician Chew Huck Chin at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital noted that steroids are the "gold standard, first-line therapy" in managing asthma.

He declined to comment on the use of artesunate as it has not been tested in clinical trials, but said: "It presents a promising prospect for future management of bronchial asthma."

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