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Can Viagra Help the Fight Against Malaria?

Written by Adam Savage in category 
September 15, 2015

Malaria is one of the world’s deadliest diseases and archenemy of Bill and Melinda Gates.

A parasite is the root cause of malaria. Humans contract the parasite, which spends most of its development in mosquitoes, from mosquito bites. Once inside their new human host the parasite seeks out a red blood cell and makes itself at home. Normally, the red blood cell would harden as a sign of infection and get filtered by the spleen (so that’s what a spleen does, huh, learn something new everyday). The parasite, however, is able to keep the cell squishy and healthy looking and pass through the spleen and then boom malaria party inside the host body.

How does this relate to Viagra? Well Viagra relaxes muscles to increase blood flow. This has a side effect of inhibiting the enzyme that would make the red blood cells squishy. Because of this all blood cells go through a good spleen scrubbing (don’t worry it doesn’t hurt healthy blood cells). The parasite gets caught and the person doesn’t get infected. At least that’s the observed results in the lab using an artificial spleen.

This is a great example of repurposing an existing item for a new use. Innovation is all about taking something old and using it in a new. In fact, there is some humor in Viagra being the drug finding an alternate use because it has already gone through this once before. Viagra was originally developed as a hypertension drug, but during clinical trials they noticed many patients reporting that it had helped with their erectile dysfunction. Sensing a market Viagra maker Pfizer simply took this side effect and made it the effect. The original reason for making the drug, treating hypertension, just became a side effect of eliminating erectile dysfunction. Now it appears, eliminating erectile dysfunction and treating hypertension, could become just a side effect to preventing malaria.

Most of the modern world is based on innovation from the light bulb to the World Wide Web. Seeing a new way to use an existing item isn’t easy and sometimes it comes from unexpected places. Actress Hedy Lamarr helped invent a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum system, a key component in modern cell phones, using the piano roll (the paper with the notes punched in) from a player piano. Sometimes the innovator is so linked to something that it can be hard to remember they didn’t invent it. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, Ford didn’t invent the car and Steve Jobs didn’t invent the MP3 player. They made an innovative version of a pre-existing item that became so ubiquitous that everyone just assumes they invented the item. Who knows maybe later today, you’ll be staring at an item you’ve seen a thousand times when you’ll realize a way to use it that makes everyone think you invented it.

 

References & Photo Credit:

 

http://www.popsci.com/viagra-could-stop-malaria

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