Novartis is taking aim at drug-resistant malaria – a growing global problem – by launching clinical trials of the first new antimalarial medicine for many years in nine countries across Africa and Asia.

The Swiss drugmaker, which is working on the mid-stage Phase IIb trial program with the group Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), said today it believed its drug KAF156 could be a "game-changer."

New antimalarials are badly needed to fight rising parasite resistance. Resistance to today's gold standard treatment artemisinin has been seen in Asia and there have also been sporadic cases of reduced drug sensitivity in Africa.

Initial tests suggest KAF156 has the potential to rapidly clear malaria infection, including resistant strains, as well as to block the transmission of the mosquito-borne malaria parasite.

KAF156 belongs to a novel class of antimalarial compounds called imidazolopiperazines. It is designed to be used in combination with an improved formulation of the existing antimalarial lumefantrine.

The new clinical trial program is now under way at one centre in Mali, and this will be followed by 16 additional centres across a total of nine countries in Africa and Asia over the next few months.

"To build on the gains made against malaria since the turn of the century, we need new medicines that are effective across all types of resistance patterns and geographies, and that are easy to administer, especially to children," said David Reddy, CEO of MMV.

Deaths from malaria have fallen sharply since 2000, thanks to the roll-out of insecticide-treated bednets, but the World Health Organization estimates there were still 438,000 fatal cases in 2015, most them in African children.

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