Background: The discovery and development of new anti-malarials are at a crossroads. Fixed dose artemisinin combination therapy is now being used to treat a hundred million children each year, with a cost as low as 30 cents per child, with cure rates of over 95%. However, as with all anti-infective strategies, this triumph brings with it the seeds of its own downfall, the emergence of resistance. It takes ten years to develop a new medicine. New classes of medicines to combat malaria, as a result of infection by Plasmodium falciparum and P. vivax, are urgently needed. Results: Natural product scaffolds have been the basis of the majority of current anti-malarial medicines. Molecules such as quinine, lapachol and artemisinin were originally isolated from herbal medicinal products. After improvement with medicinal chemistry and formulation technologies, and combination with other active ingredients, they now make up the current armamentarium of medicines. In recent years advances in screening technologies have allowed testing of millions of compounds from pharmaceutical diversity for anti-malarial activity in cellular assays. These initiatives have resulted in thousands of new sub-micromolar active compounds – starting points for new drug discovery programmes. Against this backdrop, the paucity of potent natural products identified has been disappointing. Now is a good time to reflect on the current approach to screening herbal medicinal products and suggest revisions. Nearly sixty years ago, the Chinese doctor Chen Guofu, suggested natural products should be approached by dao-xing-ni-shi or ‘acting in the reversed order’, starting with observational clinical studies. Natural products based on herbal remedies are in use in the community, and have the potential unique advantage that clinical observational data exist, or can be generated. The first step should be the confirmation and definition of the clinical activity of herbal medicinal products already used by the community. This first step forms a solid basis of observations, before moving to in vivo pharmacological characterization and ultimately identifying the active ingredient. A large part of the population uses herbal medicinal products despite limited numbers of well-controlled clinical studies. Increased awareness by the regulators and public health bodies of the need for safety information on herbal medicinal products also lends support to obtaining more clinical data on such products. Conclusions: The relative paucity of new herbal medicinal product scaffolds active against malaria results discovered in recent years suggest it is time to re-evaluate the ‘smash and grab’ approach of randomly testing purified natural products and replace it with a patient-data led approach. This will require a change of perspective form many in the field. It will require an investment in standardisation in several areas, including: the ethnopharmacology and design and reporting of clinical observation studies, systems for characterizing antimalarial activity of patient plasma samples ex vivo followed by chemical and pharmacological characterisation of extracts from promising sources. Such work falls outside of the core mandate of the product development partnerships, such as MMV, and so will require additional support. This call is timely, given the strong interest from researchers in disease endemic countries to support the research arm of a malaria eradication agenda. Paranational institutions such as the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation (ANDi) will play a major role in facilitating the development of their natural products patrimony and possibly clinical best practice to bring forward new therapeutics. As in the past, with quinine, lapinone and artemisinin, once the activity of herbal medicinal products in humans is characterised, it can be used to identify new molecular scaffolds which will form the basis of the next generation of anti-malarial therapies.
Malaria Journal (2011) 10 (Suppl. 1) S3 [doi:10.1186/1475-2875-10-S1-S3]